Jonathan Chait

Boehner, The Debt Ceiling, And The Young Guns Of August

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The notion that House Republicans might risk financial chaos by flirting with a failure to raise the debt ceiling strikes many people, including people who buy Treasury bonds, as too irrational to happen. But leaders can act irrationally, and it's worth thinking about the kinds of circumstances that cause them to do so.

When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, he had a devious scheme for rooting out potential dissidents. Members of his government would be startled by a small team of officials bursting in to announce they were undertaking a coup against Saddam -- were you with them? It was a ruse, of course. Anybody who sided with the plotters would be executed.

I thought of that when I read Michael Leahy's story about John Boehner and his testy relations with Eric Cantor and other more conservative House Republicans. It's an excellent piece, substantiating the widespread rumors that Boehner and Cantor don't like each other. (For instance, you know the book "Young Guns," touting alternative GOP House leaders who aren't perma-tanned, chain-smoking long-time functionaries? Turns out Boehner wasn't wild about it.) Indeed, while in no way would I draw any moral or psychological parallel between Boehner and Saddam Hussein, a certain similarity can be discerned in Boehner's tenuous hold on the House leadership. Boehner in the piece comes across as surrounded by internal rivals, and clings to power based on the tenuous support of rank-and-file Republicans whose actual loyalty he has difficulty ascertaining.

This anecdote was especially interesting:

“I was very skeptical of him,” remembers Chaffetz, who regarded the educational law as a federal intrusion on states. “He wasn’t as conservative as I wanted him to be.”

There was also a stylistic and generational divide between them, which Chaffetz noticed immediately when he met Boehner. “He’s sort of the Rat Pack/Dean Martin type, you know, with the cigarette in the hand and the tan and the deep growly voice,” Chaffetz says. “He started in the hole with me.”

Boehner, who largely controlled committee assignments, had casually asked what House committees Chaffetz might want to serve on. Chaffetz answered that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was his top choice.

Chaffetz received a call from Boehner aide Trevor Kolego shortly before the announcement of committee assignments. Kolego said he had bad news: Chaffetz had not been selected for the oversight committee. Worse, he was being assigned to committees he had specified as among his least desirable.

A crestfallen Chaffetz took a deep breath, as he remembers. Searching for a graceful response, he asked Kolego to thank Boehner and reaffirmed his support for the leader.

Kolego called Chaffetz back the same day and said, “Congratulations. You got all three committees you wanted.”

Chaffetz exulted, but asked, “What happened?”

“Oh, that’s just John,” Kolego replied, as Chaffetz remembers. “He wanted to figure out what kind of [expletive] you were going to be.”

One thing about leaders in surrounded by real or perceived enemies watching for any sign of weakness is that they tend to take a lot of risks that appear bizarre to the outside world. Saddam adopted a generally defiant position toward weapons inspectors during the 1990s and into 2003, ultimately accepting the risk of an American invasion rather than comply unconditionally with the United Nation's demands. It seemed crazy, and it was, but whatever logic underlay it came from Saddam's belief that he needed to maintain the perceived threat of unconventional weaponry to deter internal enemies.

Jake Sherman and Glenn Thrush report for Politico that many Republicans understood the political dangers of embracing the Ryan budget, but Boehner felt compelled to go along in order to avoid antagonizing suspicious conservatives:

Republican sources said Boehner, who has struggled to control his rambunctious new majority, needed to send a message to conservative upstarts that he was serious about bold fiscal reform especially after some of the 63 freshmen rebelled against his 2011 budget deal that averted a government shutdown.

Then there’s the ever-present friction between Boehner and Cantor, who, along with Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), has positioned himself as the next generation of GOP leadership and champion of the conservative freshman class.

Having already taken what he knew to be a huge risk with minimal payoff by supporting the Ryan budget, what can we expect of Boehner during the debt ceiling debate? The market seems to be expecting that cooler heads will prevail. Why would he risk financial chaos? Isn't he listening to business leaders? But within Boehner's world, the riskiest move is to be seen as compromising the movement's principles. When the negotiations tick down to the end, probably in August, Boehner may be thinking not of the guns pointed at the financial system but at the ones pointed at his back.

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