Boehner's right for the job but wrong for the moment

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and GOP leaders meet with reporters Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and GOP leaders meet with reporters Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

About five months ago, just after the State of the Union address, I theorized that Barack Obama and John Boehner might still have a chance to do something big together. Both men badly wanted the legislative legacy that had eluded them on issues where there was already some consensus, like debt reduction and immigration. And Boehner appeared ready to put some distance between himself and the most rigid ideologues in his caucus.

I was wrong, of course. (It happens.) In the middle of a border crisis that cries out for a comprehensive solution, the House seems likelier to send Obama articles of impeachment than a compromise bill that would reform the immigration system. The next two years now seem almost certain to be as dark and vacuous as the previous four.

You'll get a lot of explanations for why this is, and a lot of them are valid. But I find myself questioning a basic assumption that most of us once made, which is that a dealmaker like Boehner was more likely to reach some accord with the White House than a raging extremist might have been. It seems to me now that while Boehner may well be the right man for the job, he's probably the wrong guy for the moment.

Before I explain, let's try to put Washington's current illogic into some perspective. The most recent polls show Obama's approval rating hovering at just above 40 percent, while around one in ten Americans gives Congress a passing grade. (Basically, that means even the mothers of congressmen think they're a bunch of losers.) On immigration specifically, voters in a Washington Post-ABC poll released this week soundly trashed both parties for failing to act.

And yet, somehow, none of this creates much urgency on either side, and especially in Congress, to legislate anything more consequential than, just for example, a 20th anniversary commemoration of the war museum in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. As a sudden influx of mothers and children stream across the southern border, the least popular Congress in history balks at giving the president $3.7 billion in emergency aid, while Boehner prepares to bring a lawsuit challenging Obama's use of executive power.

So what's not working here?

Obama has certainly contributed to the breakdown. What we've learned about Obama, and part of what Republicans so disdain about him, is that he’s rarely willing to grant that the other side has a legitimate point on substance. Obama's idea of reaching out to the Hill generally comes down to something like: I'm right about everything, but I'm willing to do some of your nutjob stuff if that's the only way I can get a bill.

It's pretty hard to sell either your opponents or the public on a compromise grounded entirely in tactical reality, rather than in some genuine agreement on principle. Bill Clinton didn't get NAFTA or welfare reform (after vetoing it twice) by complaining he'd been forced into it. He owned the policy, because it made sense and the voters knew it. (And before all my liberal friends start screaming at me, yes, Republicans do have some valid arguments when it comes to reforming entitlement spending and the tax code.)

All that said, however, it's a good bet that Obama could at least have delivered his own party's votes for legislation that the country desperately needed. Even when Obama acquiesced to Republican demands to cut into Medicare and Social Security benefits back in 2011, before the debt deal fell apart, Democratic leaders in Congress were prepared to get behind him.

Boehner, on the other hand, has never been able to get his own caucus into a deal-making state of mind. It's probably true that Boehner was willing to trade his speakership, if need be, for a historic "grand bargain" on spending and taxes, but he wasn't going to take that risk for a compromise bill he couldn't pass. Boehner's radicalized caucus made clear, after he reached a series of smaller budget deals with the White House, that he could continue to hold power, as long as he didn't go all mushy and actually start governing.

You'll sometimes hear people in politics repeat the cliche that "only Nixon could go to China," by which they mean that only a foreign policy hawk like Richard Nixon could have opened relations with communist China without being branded a traitor. Maybe you can apply the same metaphor to Boehner. His problem in reaching accord with Democrats wasn't just the arrogance of the White House itself, but also that a lot of his own members considered him too much of a dealmaker to begin with.

Think about what might have happened, on the other hand, had the tea party insurgents managed to sweep Boehner aside and install a more like-minded leader — maybe Paul Ryan, or even some backbencher tea party favorite like Jim Jordan of Ohio. Sure, the rhetoric would have been more heated, and some of the bills more extreme. The debt ceiling standoff (or one of them, anyway) might have ended in a more calamitous way. Maybe the sky would have fallen.

But a more strident, less pliable speaker would have faced the same realities Boehner did, and probably more severe: single-digit poll numbers, disastrous demographic trends, a sense that Republicans were headed off a cliff. And unlike Boehner, that speaker might have had the credibility with the far right to buy himself some serious negotiating latitude. The prospects for compromise however bruising and hard won might actually have been better. (It was Ryan, after all, who reached a budget accord with Democratic Senator Patty Murray last year to keep the government running.)

It's easy to forget now, but this is essentially what happened in 1995, when Republicans in the House installed Newt Gingrich, a guy widely seen as an inflexible ideologue and partisan provocateur. After shutting down the government, Gingrich, who could read the polls as well as anyone, felt pressured to reposition the party as a force for governance rather than obstruction. And he had enough loyalty from the revolutionaries in his ranks to cut deals on which he could actually deliver.

Until recently, it seemed the beleaguered Boehner was getting ready to trade in his gavel for a seven-figure corporate gig and a trunk full of golf clubs. But with his understudy and rival, Eric Cantor, dispatched, and with control of the Senate possibly about to flip again, Boehner now seems bent on waiting out a Republican victory in 2016 or maybe even another Clinton presidency, which wouldn't be the end of his world, either.

A year ago, I'd have said this was good news for those who seek rational government. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe the moment demands a Nixon, when a Rockefeller is all we've got.