Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.

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Boehner Retiring Doesn’t Necessarily Help President Obama

Jonathan Chait posted an article today that outlines the optimistic scenario if Speaker Boehner retires after the 2014 elections. The midterm elections are far off still so we won’t know for a while if Boehner is sticking around or not, but Chait hypothesizes that if Boehner does decide that he’s done with political office, it could be a boon for the President’s second term:

The trouble in Washington is not so much Boehner himself, though he’s no prize, but Boehner’s desire to keep his job. A small minority of the most extreme Republicans in the House have managed to keep Boehner on a leash by threatening to depose him as Speaker if he displeases them. The Republicans hold a narrow enough majority that even an amateur-hour coup came within a handful of votes of deposing Boehner already. If Boehner wants to keep his job, he has to avoid displeasing his extremists, and his extremists are so detached from reality that they insist on wildly unrealistic demands on issues like the debt ceiling and Obamacare.

But if Boehner feels liberated to flee the House, then suddenly all sorts of governing possibilities open up. He can lift the debt ceiling and keep the government running. He could sign immigration reform, even cut a deal on the budget. There’s probably a majority in the House for all these things — it’s just a majority consisting mainly of Democrats along with a handful of Republicans. Boehner could use that majority and then ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist, enjoy a huge raise, and play a lot more golf.

Everything Chait says there is true. If Boehner finally gets fed up with the extremists in his group and decides to govern, Congress could suddenly become quite productive (well, not that productive – there’s still the Senate filibuster). There are a couple of landmines here though.

First, Boehner probably wants to keep his speakership til the end of 2014. If he starts breaking the Hastert Rule frequently, his conference would likely revolt pretty quickly. Maybe the Speaker could make a deal with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi so that he’d keep his speakership with significant Democratic support. But that would effectively give Pelosi control over the House. If Boehner needs the Minority Leader to keep his position and to pass anything, he doesn’t actually have much power. I can’t see Boehner putting himself in that position right before his retirement.

Second, this puts the rest of the Republican leadership in limbo. Do they support Boehner even as he pisses off a number of House Republicans? Or do they ditch him as well and give up their current leadership position in hopes of taking the speakership in the next Congress? A lame-duck Boehner who chose to govern would split House Republicans. It could get very messy. Does Boehner want to leave that as part of his legacy.

Third, Chait’s analysis rests on the idea that Boehner can “ride off into the sunset to become a lobbyist” and make a bunch of money. If he ruins his relationship with most of his Republican colleagues though, how will that look? How may firms on K-street are looking to hire a former Speaker who passed legislation right before his retirement that most of his party opposed? I imagine he’d still have a number of suitors, but he’ll make a lot more money and have a lot more friends if he rides out Republican opposition until the very end.

Finally, and most importantly, even if Boehner’s retirement helps the President move some of his agenda in the short run, it could hurt him even worse in the long run. A new Republican Speaker (assuming the Democrats do not retake the House) will be in the same position that Boehner currently finds himself in, balancing the moderates in his party who are looking to govern with the many extremists who reflexively oppose the President on everything. Boehner has done an excellent job appeasing the extremists during times of non-crisis while ensuring that they do not cause too much damage during crises (see the debt limit fight earlier this year). A new speaker will have less experience striking that balance and may face greater suspicion from the Tea Party. Even worse, if a Tea Party member is elected, we could find ourselves with a speaker who wants to shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. That would be a disaster for Obama’s last two years in office.

So, if Boehner retires, does it really help the President? It’s certainly not clear.