By Walter Shapiro
If John Kennedy had not written “Profiles in Courage,” today we might have a more realistic understanding of political valor. But JFK’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book so raised the bar for bravery in public life that it now seems obvious that no modern figure can measure up.
Who in the 21st century could possibly match Daniel Webster’s oratory as he heroically struggled to save the Union? Or replicate Edmund Ross’ moral fortitude as he destroyed his political career to cast the decisive vote against impeaching Andrew Johnson? Where once legislators risked being burned in effigy and physically threatened, these days the likely consequence of a courageous vote in Congress is a new career as a high-priced lobbyist.
This week’s ungainly legislative compromise that merely delayed the fiscal apocalypse until March can be ridiculed as a Profile in Timidity. Rather than ratify a grand bargain that would reform taxes and spending for a decade, Congress in predictable fashion did as little as possible as late as possible. No one, Republican or Democrat, is going to brag in their memoirs about the fortitude they displayed, dangling over the abyss, as they scaled the Fiscal Cliff.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner deserve credit for the last-minute fortitude they displayed in ending the dispiriting deadlock over extending the Bush tax cuts. It wasn’t Kennedy-defined courage—and it doesn’t erase the prior stubbornness on taxes by the Republican congressional leaders—but their political moxie should be noted.
On Sunday, with the countdown clock ticking, McConnell made a direct appeal to Joe Biden when his negotiations with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid reached a dead end. Rather than setting up secret back-channel talks with Biden, a longtime colleague, McConnell announced on the Senate floor, “I also placed a call to the vice president to see if he could help jump-start the negotiations on his side.”
The Biden-McConnell agreement challenged Republican orthodoxy in two major ways: It raised taxes on families earning more than $450,000, and it did not extract spending cuts from the Democrats. But the White House also made a big concession: Barack Obama abandoned his mantra since 2007 that families earning more than $250,000 should pay more in taxes. The difference between a $250,000 and a $450,000 threshold is about $200 billion in tax revenues over the next decade—enough to pay for the clean-up from three Hurricane Sandys.
As the Senate minority leader, McConnell presides over the more mainstream wing of Capitol Hill Republicans. While there are Tea Partiers and right-wing firebrands among Senate Republicans, there are also a few remaining moderates and old-guard legislators who remember when the word “bipartisan” was not considered hate speech.
Still, it was impressive that McConnell convinced all but five Senate Republicans to support the legislation. What was more politically ominous, though, is that the two Senate Republicans most likely to run for president in 2016 (Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) both voted “no.” Rubio’s and Paul’s votes were obviously shaped by ideology, but the two White House dreamers also presumably made a calculation that Republican presidential primary voters will demand litmus-test purity on taxes.
It has been a season of petty humiliations for John Boehner. As the congressional Republican most determined to negotiate a lasting deficit agreement with Obama, Boehner resumed talks with the president after the election in quest of the epic deal that eluded both of them in 2011. But once again, Boehner was not willing to produce enough tax revenue and Obama was not prepared to offer enough spending cuts to achieve a workable compromise.
Permanently breaking off talks with the White House, Boehner attempted to pass what he called “Plan B,” which would have preserved the Bush tax cuts for everyone earning less than $1 million a year. But the anti-tax fervor among House Republicans was so intense that Boehner abandoned “Plan B” when it became obvious that it would not pass.
Embarrassed by his failure at vote counting and left out of the Biden-McConnell negotiations, Boehner was a portrait in irrelevance until the Senate passed its own fiscal cliff legislation in the wee hours on New Year’s Day. Now it was up to Boehner’s House to determine whether the Senate compromise would be enshrined into law or whether a lingering fiscal uncertainty would have put a crimp in the economy all through January.
Up to now, Boehner had adhered to the decade-long Republican tradition that no legislation would reach the House floor unless it had the support of a majority of the GOP. But after the failure of “Plan B,” it was obvious that the only way to pass the Senate bill in the House was with an overwhelming majority of Democrats combined with a rump faction of end-the-crisis Republicans.
As the first rays of daylight hit the Capitol on New Year’s Day, Boehner confronted a series of unpalatable choices. He could try to pass the Senate bill with mostly Democratic votes, in violation of the majority-of-the-majority tradition. He could support an effort to add spending cuts to the Senate legislation, even though all signs suggested that this was a route to a new impasse. Or he could follow the Republican base right off the cliff—in effect, do nothing until the new Congress began work on Thursday.
Boehner chose legislating over posturing. Even though Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy (the No. 2 and No. 3 figures in the House GOP leadership) opposed the Senate bill, Boehner remained undaunted. By tradition, House speakers rarely vote on legislation, but Boehner put his gavel aside to vote for the Senate bill. Even more pointedly, Boehner had a friendly chat with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer on the House floor just before the vote.
No one burned Boehner in effigy. But he was excoriated for his apostasy on right-wing websites. A few hours before the final House vote, the banner headline on the Drudge Report read, “Boehner Falls on the Sword. Tax on 77% of Households.” (Most of this tax increase, by the way, stemmed from the expiration of a temporary 2 percentage point cut in payroll taxes). A lead story Tuesday on the Breitbart Big Government website heralded Eric Cantor’s challenge to Boehner over the Senate bill.
For all the unnecessary pyrotechnics, for all the missed opportunities over the past 18 months, rationality triumphed over ideological extremism in Washington this week. And if this precedent helps prevent America from defaulting on its debts when the government runs out of borrowing power in March, so much the better. But, in the interim, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner deserve muted, but sincere, applause for bringing the anti-tax Republicans back from the brink.