When the Tea Party saved us from John Boehner
David Corn takes a trip down Boehner lane:
The surprise is that Boehner, an insider institutionalist leading a band of blow-it-up tea partiers, has lasted so long—that is, that he put up with the nonsense in his caucus and managed to survive. But he survived by yielding to the extreme forces in the GOP, which he and other party leaders had fueled and exploited to win control of Congress. Consequently, Boehner will exit the speakership with few positive accomplishments. He failed his own side by not stopping President Barack Obama on health care reform and other measures that conservatives despise, and he failed himself by not achieving any grand legislation that bears his mark. As speaker, he was more of an attendant than a legislator.
There was a specific month when Boehner's dream of being a historic speaker evaporated: July 2011. His fellow Republicans had precipitated a crisis in Washington by refusing to accede to a routine move—raising the debt ceiling so the US government could pay its bills. Tea partiers were demanding deficit reduction and huge cuts in government spending in return for lifting the debt ceiling and threatening a financial crash. This led to a flurry of talks between the president and GOP leaders, and Obama saw this crisis as an opportunity. He initiated secret negotiations with Boehner. Why did they have to be undercover? To protect Boehner. The speaker could not persuade his own caucus that talking with the president to explore compromise had any value.
Through these conversations, Obama and Boehner reached what Washingtonians called a grand bargain. In essence, Obama would agree to cuts in government spending (including reductions in entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, but without any fundamental changes in these programs), and Boehner accepted increases in tax revenues that would be accomplished through reforming the tax code. At one private White House meeting of congressional leaders, Boehner declared, "I didn't run for speaker just to have a fancy title." He wanted to get something done. Something big.
Obama's Democratic allies on the Hill—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi—were wary of the deal. Eric Cantor, then the No. 2 Republican in the House, was also against it, believing House GOPers would never buy it. But Boehner wanted to try. White House aides began haggling with Boehner's top staffers over the details. Obama was willing to take heat from his side to get this deal done and move on to other matters, such as how to improve the economy and create more jobs. Boehner, though, ended up bending to politics.
As his aides were hammering out the specifics with the White House, several of Boehner's closest allies in the House Republican caucus came to his office. Word had spread that he was working on a deal with Obama that would lead to the end of tax breaks for the wealthy and an increase in tax revenues. As one of those lawmakers later recalled, "We told him, 'You're too far over the tips of your skis.'" These House members wanted him to pull back—and these were his friends. They were worried that if he proceeded, rebellious tea partiers would toss him out as speaker. Cantor and his allies, they warned Boehner, were whispering that Boehner had become a RINO—a "Republican in Name Only."
About the same time, the conservative editorialists of the Wall Street Journal—who had been tipped off to the details under negotiation—published an editorial decrying Boehner and insinuating that he would be finished as speaker if he continued to pursue this deal.
After all this, Boehner turned tail. He backed out of the serious talks for the grand bargain. At one point, he even refused to return Obama's call. Instead, he publicly proclaimed, "We are not close to an agreement." But they had been. And he had been near to a sweeping piece of legislation that Boehner believed the nation needed. He just couldn't make his own Republicans, who loathed any notion of compromise, act reasonably, and he was not willing to confront these extremists and risk his position as speaker. He might have been in charge of the House Republican caucus, but he was hardly a leader. He was a hostage.
And thank God for that.
It's unlikely the president will negotiate over Planned Parenthood so this new shutdown threat is of a different color. (The administration learned their lesson after that episode.)Boehner resigning now is supposed to make it possible for him to cobble together a continuing resolution with Democrats. The question will be whether he can find enough Republicans to go along. Maybe there's a whole group of them ready to resign, who knows?
As for whip Kevin McCarthy succeeding him, good luck getting the wingnuts to approve a newbie (elected in 2007) immigration squish from California in 2015. If he wins, it will be with mostly Democrats and it's hard to see how that puts him in any better position than Boehner.
These people are nuts. And they're getting nuttier. I don't think the chances of a shutdown have actually diminished much.