Yes, I said it.
John Boehner has done a terrific job leading his caucus and it will culminate with the House passing a clean debt ceiling bill later this evening.
To understand Boehner’s skill, you need to think about what he was trying to accomplish in each of these debt ceiling fights.
His goal has never been to get something in return from President Obama and Senate Democrats. That was never going to happen and Boehner knew it.
In addition, Boehner knew how catastrophic a default would be. That left him no choice, but to eventually fold. The challenge, then, was how to fold while limiting the backlash from the base. This served a number of purposes:
- It limited the chance he’d be overthrown as speaker. The odds of this happening were always very low, but listening to his right flank secured his position even more.
- It minimized the potential for a civil war between the Republican establishment and conservative groups. Many of these groups are furious at Boehner’s capitulation today – they are willing to let us default on the debt. Luckily for the country, Boehner disagrees with them. By holding out as long as he could, Boehner could at least show them that he tried. This was never going to be enough, but it’s better than him folding immediately.
- It gives cover for mainstream members to return to their constituents and say they did everything they could to get something out of the president. These members – who Jonathan Bernstein has nicknamed the fraidy cat conference – are the ones who have consistently sided with conservatives out of fear of being primaried, particularly during the government shutdown. If these members sided with the base in a revolt against Republican leadership, it would be create a nasty split within the party. Boehner has stopped that from happening by minimising the conservative response.
Boehner never had a precise strategy, but he never needed one. The plan was always to go along with his conservative members until the last minute and then fold. That’s exactly how the government shutdown unfolded.
That has happened once again during the past few weeks as House Republicans have searched in vain for any debt ceiling demand that they could pass. But that failure to reach an agreement stems not from Boehner’s lack of power, it stems from a few dozen conservative members who refused to vote for any debt ceiling increase under any circumstance.
Pundits who believe that Boehner should have been able to get his party in line are making the same mistake as those who think that Obama should be able to get his agenda through Congress if only he would lead. It’s a Green Lantern theory of the speakership.
When evaluating Boehner’s time as speaker, you have to place him in that context. His goal has been to keep his party unified as much as possible while repeatedly surrendering on the debt limit.
Conservative groups are reacting angrily today, but most members in the House are resigned to defeat, many opting to blame President Obama instead. That’s quite an accomplishment for Boehner. Can you imagine that happening in 2011? Or even last October if the government shutdown hadn’t happened?
As he was leaving his press conference this morning, Boehner was reportedly whistling the Disney song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Many people found this a surprisingly upbeat tune after he had just announced that Republicans were going to totally surrender.
But if you look instead at Boehner’s goals, it makes a lot more sense. He has gotten almost exactly what he wanted in a clean debt ceiling bill without much of a revolt.
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