For someone who just presided over a 16-day shutdown of the federal government that cost the country an estimated $24 billion and sent his party’s public standing plunging to historic lows, John Boehner is basking in surprisingly mild reviews. He’s earning fulsome praise from Tea Party Republicans who are grateful that he let them play out their string as long as they did, he’s getting vocal backup from his longtime business-class allies, and he’s getting a pass even from sane conservatives who decry the whole shutdown and default-flirtation gambit but minimize Boehner’s role in it. Writes Ross Douthat: “The fact that both conservatives and moderates have mostly rallied around him after this ignominious showing suggests that at some level, they understand the impossibility of what was being asked of him, and recognize that the caucus rather than the Speaker bears the primary responsibility for this fiasco.” If things continue in this vein, we may need to build a memorial on the Mall to the beleaguered yet heroic Speaker, for protesters to storm the next time Republicans decide to shut down the National Park Service.
Am I alone in finding this all a bit much? Yes, I understand what Boehner was up against in his own caucus—members newly arrived from the business of, say, birthing foals who thought that failing to raise the debt ceiling would “bring stability to world markets.” And yes, I grasp the logic in the argument that he needed to let the shutdown gambit play out a while to let his most obstreperous members see with their own eyes how counter-productive such an approach was, to make them feel that they had been heard by their leader and thereby not only maintain his position but reduce the odds of further foolhardy ventures in the future.
But anyone making this argument needs to make it really airtight—needs to be able to explain why it was necessary for Boehner to let this whole charade drag out as long as it did, rather than cutting it off earlier with a vote on a relatively clean continuing resolution and debt ceiling hike similar to what we ended up with this week. It’s not enough just to say that Boehner would have been “weakened” by allowing House Democrats and a few dozen Republicans to pass such a package. Weakened how, with what consequence? If there would be an insurrection against him, who would lead it, and would he really have the votes? This assessment would have the added benefit of holding up to scrutiny the many non-nihilistic members of the House Republican caucus who deserve to be critiqued as much as their leader. Would they really have failed to vote for a crisis-ending package earlier in the process? Would they really not have stood up for him in the event of an insurrection in the ranks?
The argument for the actual outcome as painful but necessary needs to be airtight because it needs to justify the staggering cost of the 16-day shutdown. Not just that staggering aggregate economic toll, but all the millions of points of impact that represents—the young mother seeing her last-hope cancer trial at the National Institutes of Health put on hold, the first-time homebuyers watching their closings go up in smoke, the Alaskan king-crab shipping fleet left stalled in ports in the midst of their peak season. And, yes, the corrosive increase in cynicism and scorn about our political system across the spectrum that the shutdown engendered.
The approval of Boehner I find most confounding is that coming from Republicans and conservatives who have been scathing about the whole shutdown debacle while exempting Boehner from that assessment. Take, for instance, Grover Norquist, who has not held back in saying what he makes of Ted Cruz’s dash for the cliff, but has been far more forgiving of Boehner. During a visit Thursday to The New Republic, Norquist praised the Speaker, marveling at the “amount of good feelings toward [him] and the willingness to work together” in the House GOP caucus, and arguing that Boehner had to let things play out as they did for the sake of maintaining party strength and cohesion. “You had to hit the bridge abutment. Boehner let the caucus [decide], ‘what do you want to do, how do you want to handle it.’ …You had to have a sense of exhausting, of trying everything else first.”
I challenged Norquist on this point—given what a fiasco it turned out to be, why was it not smarter to cut it off earlier with a vote that would have passed with Democratic votes and a smattering of Republican ones? “I can’t speak for him,” Norquist said. “Look, the conservative movement can and should govern from the House, not the presidency, the Senate. That’s the natural base of where you can hold things. It gives you unified government. Whereas in the Senate you have 100 people who think they should be president, if not UN General Secretary.”
I pressed again: “You’re saying this whole thing was dumb but it was better not to hold that vote two weeks ago, which could've limited a lot of damage to the party and the country, for the sake of the movement?”
“I’m not sure you could’ve had the vote,” Norquist replied. “Would the D’s have given you [the needed votes]? The Senate didn’t know what they wanted.” One of my colleagues broke in to remind Norquist that yes, Nancy Pelosi had pledged the needed Democratic votes. Norquist shrugged and continued: “We still had to negotiate sequester numbers and deadlines. You’re getting more into the weeds than I could intelligently speak to. What happened [is] the caucus tried a bunch of stuff, and Boehner was clearly listening.” He concluded: “Boehner is stronger today than he was two months ago or a year ago.”
Hmm. OK. I find that not entirely persuasive. More convincing is the account we got today from the man himself:
In explaining the origins of the first government shutdown since 1996, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) reportedly admitted to President Barack Obama earlier this month that he was "overrun" by his Republican caucus.
“John, what happened?” Obama asked Boehner on the second day of the shutdown, according to Politico.
“I got overrun, that’s what happened,” Boehner replied as he reportedly tried to exit a White House meeting for a smoke break.
He did get overrun. And the big question remains why Boehner and his silent allies in the House allowed that to happen, at such tremendous cost to the country and, yes, their party. That question should not be allowed to drift away in a cloud of post-crisis complacency and revisionism.