POLITICS MARCH 5, 2013
I have a confession to make: I'm a big fan of John Boehner. One of his very few, it turns out. The White House complains that Boehner's near-total ignorance of policy makes him impossible to negotiate with, and that it's pointless to deal with him anyway, since he exerts zero control over his members. Pundits deride him as strategically inept, constantly backing himself into corners from which there's no obvious escape. Even conservatives have lost their patience at times: Washington Examiner columnist Byron York recently called Boehner's message on sequestration—the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in Friday—"astonishingly bad."
To which I say: Yes! Boehner is goofy, poorly informed, and frequently incoherent. He often sows confusion among the very people he's supposed to be leading. But despite this—or perhaps because of it—he has been remarkably effective at saving the Republican Party from complete self-destruction. Through heroic improvisation, he's avoided the global economic apocalypse House Republicans are so intent on provoking.
Under the circumstances, Boehner has, in fact, been a raging success. I hesitate to call him "sophisticated" because that would imply a level of self-awareness and reflection I'm not sure he's capable of. But the man's instincts are damn-near impeccable.
Here is the soul-crushing reality that Boehner wakes up to every morning, before he lights up a Camel 99 and knots his power tie: The Democratic Party is much more popular than the GOP, and Barack Obama has far higher approval ratings than Republican leaders in Washington. When it comes to the budget—the key battleground in the partisan skirmishing of the last two years—the American people overwhelmingly favor Obama's approach (paring the deficit through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts) over the Republicans' (cutting spending only). And the president's bully pulpit gives him a virtually limitless ability to highlight the programs that Republican cuts would endanger.
Oh, and there's one other hitch for Boehner: Many of his 232 House Republicans refuse to acknowledge almost any of this, believing the only plausible explanation for the failure to enact their agenda is a lack of courage on the part of their leaders, of whom they are chronically suspicious. How, then, has Boehner managed to keep his job? You could spend months reading political science journals and come up with no better answer than this: The man gets crazy people.
Maybe he grew up in a dysfunctional family. Or maybe it was all those years laboring in Newt Gingrich's shadow. Whatever it is, Boehner has it. He knows just the right mix of threats and empathy to defuse almost any tense situation involving the deranged and delusional. One minute he will be warning his members to "get your ass in line." The next he will be blubbering like a baby, confessing that they make him proud to be an American. Unusually for Washington, he seems perfectly sincere regardless of the emotion he's summoning. When all else fails, Boehner will simply lie, denying anything that might upset his colleagues' delicate mental balance (like an attempted grand bargain), even when he has worked furiously to bring it about. The crazies don't always come around to his view, but they usually accept it as necessary in the end.
Boehner's most reliable tool for subduing his flock is the announcement of a "rule" that will govern his negotiations with Obama. The first such "Boehner rule" had to do with the debt ceiling in 2011: Boehner insisted on one dollar of spending cuts for every dollar that Congress raised the ceiling. On its face this was utterly preposterous. The debt ceiling must be raised by close to a trillion dollars each year.
Since then, Boehner has announced a variety of other rules: Any revenue increase must be accompanied by spending cuts of equal or greater magnitude. Legislation can only come to the House floor if a majority of Republicans support it. (This last rule isn't new, but Boehner reemphasized it with great vigor.) The point of announcing the rules isn't to follow them (he almost never does). It's to give voice to the passions that most rile up his members, but which they are incapable of fully expressing. My two-year-old daughter went from being continuously frustrated before she could talk to only frequently frustrated after she could talk, even though the range of things I let her do hasn't really changed. The Speaker intuitively grasps this mindset.
Alas, due to a quirk in our system of government, it is not sufficient for Boehner to simply defuse the frustrations of his most fevered members. It is occasionally necessary that the House actually pass legislation—to keep the government funded, say, or prevent a default on our debt. Fortunately, Boehner has settled on an ingenious formula for accomplishing this, too.
It is roughly as follows: First Boehner stakes out a position so extreme or impractical that he effectively marginalizes himself from any negotiation with Democrats. At that point, Democrats begin to bargain with Boehner's Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. Once they strike a deal, it passes the Senate with overwhelming support. This is the cue to Boehner to troop before his caucus and lament that they fought the good fight for as long as they could, but now even their fellow Republicans have turned on them. If it is their will to hold out, then Boehner will obey it. (Always best to give crazy people the illusion of agency.) But he can no longer in good faith recommend this path. Invariably, the lunatics fold. This is how we averted the dreaded fiscal cliff in early January. It's more or less how the stalemate over the debt ceiling resolved itself in the summer of 2011, and how the stalemate over the payroll tax ended later that year.
Boehner's standing had fallen to arguably the lowest point of his speakership heading into the wrangling over the sequester—the crude, across-the-board cuts Republicans and the White House agreed to back in 2011, when they couldn't settle on a more humane way to rein in the deficit. This was ironic, since sequestration would soon showcase all of Boehner's leadership talents in one dramatic burst.
As usual, Boehner's jihadists entered the new year determined to pick a losing fight. Some wanted to default on our debt if Obama didn't agree to massive spending cuts; others wanted to threaten a government shutdown. (Typical quote in Politico: "House Speaker John Boehner 'may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,' said a top GOP leadership adviser. 'We might need to do that for member-management purposes.'") Both of these fights would have had somewhere between lousy and catastrophic consequences for the economy. Polls indicated that the GOP would take the political blame.
Boehner recognized that sequestration could serve as a third option for the inevitable smackdown—the least bad one, at that. His logic here is unassailable. Most experts believe the economic consequence of letting the sequester take effect will be limited and gradual, certainly less traumatic than a default or a shutdown. There's even a small but real chance Americans won't notice the cuts—in which case the Republicans will have scored a big ideological victory, having made the point that the country has no problem with austerity as a practical matter. Sequestration is the one confrontation of the last few years that offers at least a theoretical upside for the GOP.
Boehner went about closing the deal in his distinctly Boehnerian way, deploying his mystical ability to break through to lunatics. He concocted more of his famous rules—vowing that he would refuse to negotiate with Obama behind closed doors (counterproductive if observed, almost certain to be discarded at some point); insisting he would reject another cent of tax hikes. At a House Republican retreat in mid-January, he hinted through a series of panel discussions that his members should get a grip. One panel was titled "What is the Role of the Republican Majority in the 113th Conference," whose message a Boehner spokesman translated roughly as, "we control one-half of one-third of the federal government in a Democratic-run town." By February, the House had miraculously agreed to take the debt ceiling off the table and set aside the possibility of a shutdown.
It's possible that there will be no deal to end the sequester, at least not this year. But if Obama and McConnell do agree on an alternative that trims the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, as the White House prefers, Boehner will almost certainly pass it through the House using his standard tactics.
What's nearly as certain is that Boehner will receive none of the credit for resolving the crisis. Conservatives will grumble that they inexplicably failed to impose their platonic vision of Hooverism. The media will claim that Obama bested his Republican opponents yet again. Only the real aficionados will understand that the main difference between Boehner and Obama isn't what they want, which is more alike than not: a smaller deficit that doesn't destroy the economy. It's that one is simply a lot better at getting his way in the House of Representatives.