The Power of John Boehner's Weakness

Speaker Boehner's inability to lead his own party is actually benefiting Republicans.

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Yesterday, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein talked with National Review's Robert Costa to get a read on the Republican politics in the House and to try to understand why Speaker John Boehner "doesn't just ditch the hard right." Costa articulated what is the conventional wisdom around town: "He's very aware of his limited hand. ... So he treads carefully, maybe too carefully. But he knows a clean CR has never been an option for him." In sum, Boehner's weak; he may lose the speakership if he tries to go around the tea party wing of his caucus.

While this may be true, what's lost in this analysis is how incredibly powerful Boehner's weakness has been in the last two fiscal crises. Powerful? Yes, powerful.

During negotiations over both the July 2011 debt ceiling and the December 2012 fiscal cliff, Republicans were able to extract far more from President Obama than either political observers expected or his fellow Democrats could believe. In the 2011 confrontation, Republicans were able to reduce spending, while not agreeing to any revenue increase. In the 2012 standoff, President Obama, post-reelection and at the height of his recent popularity, not only agreed to extending tax cuts for individuals making under $400,000, but also allowed the sequester to remain in effect.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Although conservative Republicans may not believe this, the Democrats gave up far more in both of these compromises than their institutional power suggests they should have. No wonder Obama palpably seethes with rage when he recounts the facts of the situation: "One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government. You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job.”

Actually, they do. And they have.

Not only were the Framers "unanimous that Congress, as the representatives of the people, should be in control of public funds — not the President or executive branch agencies," which means that Congress can wield that bludgeon as liberally as it wants, but also, since the House operates on majoritarian rules and Republicans, not Democrats, are in the majority, they essentially possess what amounts to veto power over legislation.

But even more important than holding the majority, Boehner benefits from his conference's irrationality. The staunchly conservative and "devil may care about the consequences" ideological rhetoric of the  tea party makes Boehner's threats of not being able to pass a bill without giving something to the far right credible. Further, the liberals' beliefs about the tea party – that they are some wildly lunatic fringe of conservatives akin to Civil War Era Democrats – only bolsters the perception that Boehner is truly at the mercy of this faction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Every time Boehner throws up his hands and says, "I can't control them," both President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid get slightly more scared about the end game. Irrationality is unpredictable. Rational incentives are not sufficient. And this is why Republicans have been able to make the tail wag the dog in these fiscal showdowns. This is why they've been able to force the Democrats to give up more in these compromises than they should have. Whether the tea partyers's  irrational threats work a third time has yet to be determined and we won't know until we see the final deal.

It's possible that the resolute stances from Obama and Reid about not negotiating with Republicans, whom Democrats refer to as "extortionists" and "terrorists," may well work. But there's no certainty that this Democratic "just say no" strategy won't end up "destroying the village in order to save it."

Still, there's no doubt that Boehner's most powerful words are: It's beyond my control.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Republican Obamacare Rhetoric Is Recycled from the Social Security Fight
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