There’s a theory bandied about that House Speaker John Boehner played the debt-limit-and-government-shutdown crisis like a maestro, maneuvering his party’s caucus of about 15 hard-core reactionaries (and another 60 or 70 fellow travellers) into precisely the humiliating defeat he wished for them. This is too clever by half. And while House Democrats are rightly pleased by their victory, they should take care not to waste any gratitude on Boehner for making it possible. Rather, they should make common cause with the Republican extremists who want to dump him.
Democrats’ reasons for wanting Boehner gone would of course be different than those of the GOP’s Boehner-haters. The Republicans’ reactionary caucus wants Boehner gone because he’s too accommodating to Democrats, as witnessed by his willingness to push through the Senate-negotiated deal. Democrats should want Boehner gone because he’s been too accommodating to the reactionary caucus, as witnessed by his willingness to dither and dicker with them for more than two weeks before reaching more or less the same deal he could have gotten through the House prior to the shutdown.
Those two weeks were very costly to the GOP. Before it was over the GOP had sunk to an all-time low approval rating of 25%, and the Tea Party to an all-time low approval rating of 21%, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s very good news for Democrats, and it’s largely Boehner’s doing.
But those same two weeks were also very costly to the economy, which is to say to all of us. The New York Timescites the forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers’s estimate that the shutdown knocked 0.3% points off fourth-quarter growth, which was already projected to be comparatively weak. As for the debt-limit standoff, Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon wrote on Oct. 14, “We’re already well past the point at which that certainty [about payment on Treasury bonds] has been called into question. Fidelity, for instance, has no U.S. debt coming due in October or early November, and neither does Reich & Tang.” Treasuries rallied after the deal was announced, but long-term effects on the U.S. bond market remain uncertain. By one reckoning the various budget standoffs of the past two years have cost the country close to one million jobs.
Boehner handled all these standoffs poorly, but he bungled the most recent one the worst. He pretended that defunding Obamacare was a plausible option when he knew it wasn’t. He pimped for elimination of Obamacare’s employer health care subsidies for Congress and congressional staff—a routine component of employer health plans in the private sector—even though he’d been working privately for months to save them. Even as a panderer, Boehner was incompetent: all his proposed compromises--every last one of them certain to be rejected by the Senate and the Obama White House--were rejected by hard-right Republicans before the Democrats ever got the chance.
Boehner staked all on being able to pass a compromise bill with a majority of GOP votes, but even when it looked like that was possible, he hesitated to move forward in hopes that he could tame his right flank. He has never understood that that flank is now, and always will be, untamable.
What’s certain is that Boehner always had the option to open the government and raise the debt limit by depending on Democratic votes, which will be the final outcome. Boehner stuck to a “majority of the majority” fetish conceived by Dennis Hastert, either not knowing or not caring that Hastert himself (never thought of as a leader with much backbone) violated the rule more than any other speaker since Tip O’Neill. The only plausible explanation for Boehner’s hesitancy is cowardice.
It’s hard to believe that, when Republicans gather to choose their House leader after the 2014 midterms, Boehner will want to remain speaker. But if he does, there ought to be bipartisan support for showing him the door. Even Eric Cantor couldn’t be worse.