Boehner’s Shutdown Strategy is Working Out Pretty Well

Democrats are still underestimating this man.
Democrats are still underestimating this man.

We’re into the second week of the government shutdown and rapidly approaching the debt ceiling deadline. Republicans are overwhelmingly taking the blame for the shutdown and still have no leverage in the negotiations. Democrats are still unified in their support for a clean continuing resolution. That doesn’t sound like a good situation for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his party, right? Wrong.

In fact, this shutdown has worked out pretty well for Boehner. He’s kept his party unified while slowly ramping down their demands. Liberals dismiss the importance of party unity too quickly. They have clamored for the past week that the speaker should bring a clean CR up in the House and allow a vote on it. Such a bill would likely pass (despite Boehner’s bizarre refutation of that yesterday) and the shutdown would end. But this ignores the political reality of the situation. Conservative Republicans would go crazy at such a move. They may try to challenge Boehner’s speakership. Club for Growth and other conservative organizations may immediately look to primary moderate Republicans who voted for the bill. If these outside groups didn’t have much power, then Boehner and moderate Republicans could ignore them. But they are powerful. They have money and an influential grassroots networks. The Tea Party can’t simply be brushed away as an inconvenience. This means that a clean CR is simply not an option. Liberals who call for Boehner to bring one to the floor are ignoring the political dynamics that exist in the Republican party.

Another positive for Boehner is that he has a successfully merged the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights. It quickly became apparent last week that any shutdown deal would have to raise the debt ceiling as well as there was not time for two fiscal fights. Yet, this is a huge win for the Republican Party. Whatever final deal that the parties work out, Republicans will be able to tell their constituents that they broke Obama’s promise not to negotiate on the debt limit. If Boehner had split his party in half and passed a clean CR, he would’ve faced a debt ceiling fight a few weeks later and Obama would have held firm on not negotiating. In the end, Boehner would have had to raise the debt ceiling without getting anything in return (or anything remotely substantial). He understands how catastrophic a default would be and would never have allowed it to happen. In order to show that he extracted concessions out of Obama for raising the debt ceiling, he had to combine that fight with the one over the budget. He has accomplished that as well.

The Republican party is also taking a political hit each day the shutdown continues, but it’s highly unlikely to threaten their majority in the House and that’s what really matters. It may make it more difficult for them to take back the Senate, but with Obama in office, a Republican Senate won’t accomplish anything anyways. Politically it might help them for the 2016 presidential election, but controlling both houses of Congress in 2014 won’t allow Republicans to accomplish much legislatively. If the shutdown truly risked their House majority, it would be a big deal, but it doesn’t. In addition, the piecemeal bills the House has passed to fund the politically toxic aspects of the shutdown have given Republicans a talking point they can use to deflect blame. The political consequences of this shutdown simply aren’t very large.

Part of that is because the shutdown is actually not that harmful. The negative economic effects are minimal, especially with half of the furloughed workers returning to work today and all of them receiving back pay for their missed work. In fact, 83% of government spending is happening as scheduled. That’s not to say that the other 17% is minimal. It isn’t. There are some truly terrible parts of this crisis – NIH patients not receiving cancer treatment and research ruined – but it’s a sad truth that the effects of the shutdown are limited. Most Americans aren’t feeling them and the national parks and monuments being closed – while frustrating and disappointing to many tourists – isn’t a big deal. The longer the shutdown continues, the more it will become a true crisis that requires an immediate solution. But it will likely be over in less than two weeks as both parties understand the need to find a solution before we breach the debt ceiling. The effects of a government shutdown from October 1st to October 17th aren’t that big.

Finally, Boehner may earn his party substantial policy concessions from Obama and Senate Democrats. If the speaker had listened to all those calling for a clean CR, he would’ve received the sequester level cuts and nothing else, including nothing in return for raising the debt ceiling. Now, he has already locked in sequestration and will receive something else for a combined deal on both the government shutdown and debt ceiling. That may be the repeal of the medical device tax, some larger deal with chained CPI or a mechanism to spur tax reform. Whatever it is, it’ll be more than he would’ve accomplished by passing a clean CR, all while keeping his party unified and limiting the negative political consequences of the shutdown. The Tea Party will likely be angry at the final deal as some are OK with breaching the debt limit, but Boehner and moderate Republicans can turn to them and say they did absolutely everything they could to fight Obama and Senate Democrats.

It’s easy for liberals to look at Boehner’s position and see a weak leader who has no strategy or endgame and is terrified of the Tea Party. That’s not an entirely wrong description, but it doesn’t mean he is ineffective and it ignores the fact that Boehner has accomplished quite a bit the past week. Once again, Democrats are underestimating him.

Boehner’s Weakness Doesn’t Make Him Ineffective

John Boehner has not been a mean machine as speaker.
John Boehner has not been a mean machine as speaker.

One of the most common adjectives used to describe Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is weak. A quick google search will find you numerous examples of different pundits from both sides of the aisle criticizing Boehner for not having control of his caucus. The problem is that all of these pundits are conflating “weakness” with “ineffectiveness.” Boehner is a weak speaker, but that doesn’t make him ineffective. On the contrary, a weak speaker is exactly what Republicans need right now.

To understand this, imagine the counterfactual where Boehner is a strong speaker, ruling his caucus with an iron grip and dealing out strict punishments for breaking ranks within the party. Disloyal members receive crappy committee assignments and no money from the party in their next campaign. How do you imagine this would play out with the far right? Do you think they would fall in line and become loyal soldiers? Of course not! These members believe they were sent to Washington to stop “business as usual.” The more that they buck the party, the more that they believe they are listening to their constituents. Being ostracized from is a great way to attract conservative donors and produces great talking points in a potential primary. These members take great pleasure in defying him and it’s often good politics for them to do so.

This mindset has eliminated all of Boehner’s weapons. That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have still punished disloyal members, but that would have created an even deeper divide within the GOP. It would’ve openly and publicly pitted Boehner and the House leadership versus a small, but substantial and vocal group of Republican Congressmen. It would have been a mess for the party. FreedomWorks and Club for Growth would almost certainly have sided with the intransigents and Boehner would have likely had to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for support to keep his speakership.

That’s what would’ve happened if Boehner attempted to be a strong speaker. The House would have accomplished as little as it has today and budget battles would have been even more intense with a full-out civil war in the Republican party undermining trust and disrupting any negotiations. A battle over who would be speaker would have complicated things as well.

Instead, Boehner has chosen to be weak. It’s pretty clear that Boehner would have failed mightily if he had attempted to be a strong speaker, but that doesn’t mean the choice was easy. The media coverage Boehner has received has been almost universally negative. Being weak has meant being ineffective. But all of that coverage fails to take into account the larger political context that Boehner is working within. Nevertheless, Boehner has accepted it all and continued to balance the crazy demands of hard-line conservatives with the political reality that Americans blame the Republican party for these fiscal crises. On top of that, he knows that each of these crises is damaging the economy and reduces American confidence in their elected officials. It’s an almost impossible situation to deal with, but Boehner has navigated it so far by allowing himself to be weak. Don’t confuse that with him being ineffective and don’t ignore the larger realities of our current political system. It’s unfair to judge him by doing so.

John Boehner is a Genius

Turn the clock back a year. It’s the middle of the 2012 election and I tell you that President Obama will win a second term commandingly, Republicans will hold the House and Democrats will keep the Senate. On December 31, the Bush tax cuts expire and sequestration takes effect. Soon after that, we’ll hit the debt ceiling. President Obama also campaigned on raising taxes for those with incomes over $250,000, refuses to negotiate on the debt ceiling and everyone hates sequestration. Oh, and the Republican party will swing even further to the right in the aftermath of the election with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell facing a primary challenge and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) becoming leaders of the party. Over the next 12 months, what do you think the course of economic and tax policy will be?

Here would’ve been my guess:

  • Taxes raised for all those with incomes over $250,000
  • Capital gains and dividends taxed at a much higher rate, if not as ordinary income
  • Estate tax rises back to 40%
  • Payroll tax cut extension
  • Sequestration is rolled back with limited if any replacement cuts
  • Debt ceiling raised without a fight

Here’s where we may be at in just a couple of days:

  • Taxes raised for individuals with incomes over $400,000 and families over $450,000
  • Capital gains and dividends taxed at 20% (rising from 15%)
  • Estate tax rises back to 40%
  • No payroll tax cut extension
  • Sequestration is on the brink of becoming permanent
  • Debt ceiling is shaping up to be a major fight

That’s a lot of victories for Republicans and it’s in large part due to John Boehner. He has repeatedly out negotiated President Obama because he and his caucus seem more willing to break through the fiscal cliff, shutdown the government and default on our debt. In fact, Boehner is not willing to do any of those things more than Democrats are. He brokered a last second fiscal cliff deal that was a pretty big victory for Republicans under the circumstances (only raised taxes on individual income over $400,000). Over the current continuing resolution battle, Boehner is now hoping his caucus will give up their desperate demand to defund Obamacare and pass a clean CR. It’s looking like we could be heading for a government shutdown – the least damaging of all the potential fiscal crises, but damaging nonetheless. In the end though, this will likely be a huge victory for Republicans, even if they don’t treat it as such! Sequestration will stay in effect and while many Republicans don’t like the defense cuts, they are more than happy with the other cuts to discretionary spending. By changing the conversation to focus on defunding Obamacare, Boehner and his colleagues have made sequestration permanent. The upcoming debt ceiling battle is a place where Republicans have leverage. They know the President doesn’t want to breach it – even if he said he won’t negotiate – and Americans want there to be a negotiation. How this shapes up is anyone’s guess, but Boehner has put his caucus in an excellent shape.

Of course, not all of this is Boehner’s doing. A lot of times, he’s gone with the flow and benefited thanks to the credible threats of his right flank to do crazy things. He’s had trouble passing a farm bill and immigration reform doesn’t have a chance in the House. But nothing was going to happen no matter who was speaker. In addition, despite repeatedly promising Tea Party Republicans that they would take on Obamacare and find a way to stop it, he has convinced them to back off and move to the next battle. Most importantly, he’s done so without losing his speakership. I expect he’ll do the same with the debt ceiling since Boehner knows we can’t breach it. But it’s going to be very hard for the President not to negotiate it all. If Boehner extracts any concessions from him, it will be a monumental victory.

So while everyone is saying that John Boehner is irresponsible and has lost control, I think he’s a genius. A lot of the time, he’s going with the flow of his caucus. But he’s also used their craziness as leverage to extract meaningful concession from President Obama and Senate Democrats. At the same time, he’s avoided any fiscal disaster while keeping his speakership. I still hold out hope that he’s going to find a way around a government shutdown. He may not have an exact plan, but he has a strategy:

  1. Lie to his caucus, allow them to “take control” and make it seem as if disaster will strike
  2. Use that desperation to subtly change the conversation to the upcoming disaster and extract concessions from Democrats
  3. Go back to his caucus, say he got everything he could and convince them to vote to avoid the crisis at the last minute
  4. Keep his speakership by allowing himself to seem weak and extract some concessions
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

It’s worked over and over again and allowed Republicans to swing policy to the right in situations where they have zero leverage. Boehner has stopped the base from causing a fiscal crisis and still kept his speakership. Call him irresponsible. Call him crazy. Call him reckless. Call him whatever you want, but John Boehner has been a brilliant speaker for the Republican Party and Democrats have underestimated him for far too long.