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October 19, 2013 10:35 AM What Was John Boehner Thinking?

The speaker's strategy hurt him and the rest of us, too.

By Max Ehrenfreund

John Boehner’s legislative strategy in allowing the government to close at the beginning of the month was, as far as I can tell, totally incoherent.

Politico reports the following exchange between Boehner and the president:

“John, what happened?” Obama asked, according to people briefed on the Oct. 2 conversation.

“I got overrun, that’s what happened,” Boehner said.

As you would expect, the Politico staff accept this statement uncritically, but of course, it isn’t right. The speaker could’ve always brought a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government to a vote. He did not get overrun. He made a choice to sacrifice the interests of his party — not to mention the country as a whole — to the demands of a faction in his caucus, knowing full well that he’d get almost nothing out of a protracted negotiation with Democrats. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Robert Costa, the Republican leadership had determined months ago that closing the government was futile.

“Republicans never believed Obama would hold firm on his refusal to negotiate and Democrats would maintain an unusual level of cohesion,” write the Politico reporters. “The belief Dems could be broken led Boehner to spend weeks floating one solution after another that (he hoped) would be acceptable to the GOP’s Tea Party wing,” Greg Sargent writes. Yet these explanations are no longer plausible after reading McConnell’s interview. The G.O.P. strategists understood the situation perfectly well. Why, then, did Boehner persist?

Sean Sullivan quotes several conservative Republican congressmen who praise Boehner for putting up a fight and argues that he need to do so to maintain their loyalty:

Boehner did just what he had to do to prove his mettle to a skeptical and often unruly conference. They demanded a crusade against Obamacare. He gave it to them. They didn’t want to back down even on the precipice of a shutdown. He didn’t. With his back against the wall, Boehner demonstrated his loyalty until the point the macroeconomic and political costs simply became too much to bear.

Accepting this interpretation, Boehner’s actions were still unconscionable. We went through all of that, just so Boehner could keep his job. If he cared about being the speaker for any reason other than personal ambition — if he genuinely wanted to serve his country, say, or keep the worst instincts of his party in check — then now would have been the ideal moment to take his fall for the greater good. It’s difficult to see what more he’ll be able to achieve with regard to substantive policy in the remainder of his tenure.

A caveat: Noam Scheiber argued, when all of this was getting started, that Boehner had to shut down the government to avoid a default. Possibly, Boehner feared that if he lost his job, then when the debt ceiling had to be increased again, his replacement might simply be unwilling to do it. I’m not sure how likely that scenario is: a credible candidate would be required for a revolt against the speaker to succeed, and presumably such a person would understand the danger of default. Perhaps the possibility can explain Boehner’s calculations more charitably.

Even so, I’m not entirely convinced that Boehner made the right decision, even if maintaining power is his sole objective. Conservative Republicans are happy to have him as speaker, because they’re now satisfied that they can get what they want from him. Hey may be a RINO sell-out, but he’s their RINO sell-out. Naturally, none of them are considering a revolt. Boehner’s position is safe, but he has demonstrated his weakness, which will only make future negotiations more difficult.

The man gets crazy people,” Scheiber wrote this spring. This time, though, I believe Boehner’s instincts have failed him. The conservative members of his caucus will be bolder in challenging his initiatives, and he will have to rely increasingly on Democrats to accomplish the basic tasks of governing. In the long run, the best thing would have been to demonstrate that the Tea Party cannot control the G.O.P. leadership, and that if they refuse to make reasonable demands, they’ll be shut out of the process altogether. That was the lesson Obama tried to convey, and it would have behooved Boehner to make sure it was received.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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