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.

It’s Time for Pelosi and House Dems to Support Boehner

The one thing that is severely limiting John Boehner’s ability to negotiate and compromise with Senate Democrats over the budget and pass a clean debt ceiling increase is the threat of losing his speakership. Hard-line conservatives refuse to accept the political reality that Obamacare is the law of the land and are rejecting any budget deal that does not either defund or delay it. It’s an absurd negotiating position and President Obama will never agree to it. That puts us at a stalemate.

There is likely sufficient Democratic support in the House to pass a clean continuing resolution while keeping the sequester if Boehner chooses to bring such a bill to the floor. It probably would break the Hastert Rule (meaning it would not receive majority Republican support), but it would also prevent a government shutdown. However, if Boehner does that, his speakership would almost certainly be over. Here’s Buzzfeed’s Kate Nocera reporting:

“The House needs to completely defund Obamacare, not one penny to Obamacare. If so groups would reluctantly live with a one year no funding deal, but has to fully defund all aspects of Obamacare. Delay without defund or if House funds it in any capacity, then all hell is going to break loose,” said a conservative strategist who was on the call.

The strategist said a one-year delay of funding was “as far as these groups are willing to go.”

“If the House does not stick to its guns on this, there will be a major problem with the conservative and tea party base,” the strategist said.

This gives Boehner no maneuvering room. His options are to either defy the tea party base and lose his speakership or shutdown the government.

But there is one way for Boehner to ensure that he keeps his speakership even if he passes a bill that causes a Tea Party revolt: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Democrats should publicly commit to supporting Boehner if he brings up a clean CR and his base challenges him. This gives Boehner political cover to avoid a government shutdown while also demonstrating an ability to work with House Democrats. The Tea Party would go absolutely nuts, but who cares? Congress isn’t going to accomplish anything until after 2014 anyways.

As for Boehner’s personal incentives, if he really is going to retire after 2014, then right now he is looking to improve his legacy. He is (wrongly) considered an ineffective speaker who has accomplished very little. A government shutdown would only make his resume look worse. But avoiding a government shutdown while keeping the sequester would be a Republican victory that he could be proud of. He would undoubtedly take pleasure in reducing the power of the Tea Party as well. Even if he isn’t planning on retiring, a government shutdown increases the odds that Democrats take back the House which would end Boehner’s speakership in 2014 anyways. Avoiding a shutdown is in his personal interest no matter his future plans.

The biggest issue here is that relying on Democratic support makes Boehner a lame-duck speaker. If he still wanted to accomplish anything during the rest of this Congress, he would face such animosity from his base that he would have to rely on Democratic support. That’s a big problem for him. A few weeks ago, I wrote that it was basically too big of a problem to make it worth betraying the Tea Party. Now, the math has changed. Immigration reform is on life-support and Tea Party opposition to any CR that doesn’t defund or delay Obamacare has left Boehner with no good options. Avoiding a government shutdown with a clean CR would be good politics for the Republican Party and also good for the economy. The challenge is to make it politically feasible for Boehner to do. Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have the ability to do just that and it’s time they did so.

P.S. This would also ensure that we didn’t breach the debt ceiling as Pelosi and Boehner should make a similar deal over that. In fact, its much more important that Pelosi put her support behind Boehner in the debt ceiling standoff so that he feels safe raising the debt ceiling without any concessions from the president. That’s absolutely vital.

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.