On The Debt Ceiling, John Boehner Is Winning

John Boehner smileAPIn private, Boehner is smiling.

House Republicans are having trouble agreeing on a demand for raising the debt ceiling.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the Republican leadership have been unable to settle on a demand that could garner 217 Republican votes to pass the House (normally it’s 218, but there are a few vacancies).

Democrats aren’t going to supply any votes unless it’s a clean debt ceiling increase so it’s up to House leadership to find something that can pass.

Here’s what they’ve considered so far:

  • Repealing Obamacare’s risk corridors
  • Approving of the Keystone XL pipeline
  • Undoing the cuts to military pensions in the budget deal

So far, nothing has worked.

This has left Boehner in a tough position. Conservatives don’t want to raise the debt ceiling without getting anything in return, but his caucus can’t agree on any type of compensation.

Many people have called this embarrassing for the speaker. It’s not. It’s exactly what he wanted to happen.

Less than six months ago, conservatives in the House were demanding absurd spending cuts or repeal of the individual mandate in return for raising the debt ceiling. Many members were willing to default. They were ready to fight tooth-and-nail. The same thing happened over the 2011 debt ceiling fight.

But guess what’s not happening this time around? Conservatives aren’t screaming that we should defund Obamacare or that we should default. They’ve almost given up.

Look at what Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), of all people, said yesterday:

There is a pragmatism here. You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight.

Now, compare that to what Bachmann said during the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights last Fall:

This fight that we’re in right now is so much bigger than Obamacare. It’s bigger than the out of control debt. What this is about is whether or not we will hold to our constitutional republic, because Barack Obama has decided that he is going to arrogate power to himself, and that we don’t count with our voice in the House. It doesn’t matter that Republicans control. It doesn’t matter that conservatives dominate. Everything has to be his way. That’s why his policy is no negotiations. Well, that is not going to happen.

In four months, Bachmann has gone from fiercely fighting Obama over the budget and voting for a default to deciding that it’s not even worth the fight.

And Boehner should be upset by this?

This isn’t embarrassing for him. It’s great! Boehner knows he’s going to lose these fights. The less his members want to fight, the better for him it is when he has to eventually fold.

Much of this is a direct result of the shutdown last October. In return for listening to his members, he gained credibility with them so they wouldn’t revolt. Then the parties agreed to a budget deal, partially because Republicans knew they couldn’t shut down the government again. Now, House Republicans barely have the energy to fight another debt ceiling fight.

Sure, some will be angry when he eventually folds this time, but the reaction will be much less than in the past. Many House Republicans learned from the government shutdown that they aren’t going to win these fights. The president isn’t going to back down, the public is against them and we can’t default.

Boehner knew all of this last Fall. Now, most of his members know it as well.

That’s not embarrassing or weak or ineffective. It’s leadership. Sometimes you have to tell your followers their mistakes. Sometimes you have to let them commit them.

Boehner is seeing the results of that second strategy now and he’s winning.

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