“Go Out There and Win an Election”

Those were the words President Obama directed towards the Republican Party today as he further emphasized that this was the end of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. If the Republican Party doesn’t like the president or his policies, it should take its message to the American people and win elections. It’s a simple argument and it also applies to moderate Republicans. If they want to take back their party, win elections. Defeat Tea Party candidates in primaries.

Liberals are hopeful that this complete and utter defeat of the Republican Party in the debt-ceiling battle will lead to a change of GOP strategy. The theory goes that the Tea Party will see that its extreme tactics don’t work and will look for more practical methods to fight the president. This is highly unlikely to happen.

Boehner did an excellent job keeping his members unified, but grassroots organizations around the country have had about enough. Molly Ball has a great story today about how many conservative activists are ready to leave the GOP and want to primary every Republican who voted for the bill. Their belief is that Republican tactics didn’t fail, their leadership did. For the moment, there’s a gap between the opinions of these activists and the Tea Party members in Congress. These congressmen had nothing, but positive things to say about the speaker yesterday while Eric Erickson, Rush Limbaugh and other notable conservatives weren’t so kind. That gap will disappear soon enough as those congressmen look to stay on the good side of Erickson and Co.

Many reform conservatives were appalled with the Tea Party’s tactics. Ross Douthat hopes this was a learning exercise for the party so that it won’t “pull this kind of stunt again.” David Frum is ready for the Tea Party to exit altogether. He’s not alone in that opinion.

But Boehner and Republican leaders know that as much as they want to do that, they can’t. Whether they like it or not, the Republican Party needs the Tea Party as much as they need the moderates. They are listening to the Tea Party and not the moderates, because the Tea Party has no problem declaring war on the establishment and jumping ship. That may be electoral suicide, but the right wing doesn’t fear those consequences. The moderates do. It’s the same reason the hard-liners didn’t fear the political consequences of a futile government shutdown or the economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. It’s a game of chicken between the moderates and radicals. Whoever is willing to ditch the party and cause electoral defeat for both has control. Right now, that’s the Tea Party.

That’s why Boehner can’t simply cast aside his conservative members. It’s why he must do everything in his power to keep them happy and listen to them.

The way moderates take back the party is not through a civil war, but by defeating them in elections. As these extreme tactics fail, the moderate Republicans will earn more support from the marginal Tea Party voter. Slowly, they will win back their trust. This won’t be an overnight change. It will take at least the 2014 election cycle, probably longer and there’s nothing either party can do to speed it along. It’s deeply frustrating for Democrats to look across the aisle and see a party held captive by a small fraction of extreme members. For Republicans, it’s even more frustrating to be the ones held captive by those members. But casting aside those members in a nasty civil war will be political suicide for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The best thing moderate Republicans can do is win elections.

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.