No one in Washington has covered themselves in glory over this government shutdown. And as expected, everyone is trying to drive whatever partisan advantage they can out of the mess. No surprise there: that’s what politicians do. It’s also why you get polls indicating that only 5% of the American people approve of the job Congress is doing. (Republican strategist Mike Murphy nicely pointed out on Meet The Press that with a margin of error greater than 5%, it’s actually getting hard to statistically prove that anyone approves of the job Congress is doing.) And yet, almost all of these incumbents will be reelected next year – everyone hates Congress, but they seem to mostly think the problem is other people’s Congressperson.
So, are there any winners despite the gloom? Well, it clearly depends on who you ask. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) seems to think his side is winning. So, apparently, does the White House. This is pretty clearly one of the shortcomings of a two-party system: you can be as inept at politics and policy as you’d like as long as the other side provides you with what looks like cover to your base.
But there is one man who has emerged with all the influence he could have asked for, and it’s the same man who most of the Washington establishment reserves so much of their professional scorn for. I’m talking, of course, about the little-loved Speaker of the House, John Boehner.
There are many reasons for Speaker Boehner’s troubles. First, he’s the head of the one government body the Republicans control – his job description is essentially to be a thorn in the Democrats’ side. That would be the case no matter what else were true, but when you account for the particularly poisonous atmosphere that has enveloped Washington during the Obama Administration, it’s no shocker that Mr. Boehner has few Democratic friends.
But neither does he have many Republican friends. Mr. Boehner became the Speaker of the House in 2011 because he was the next in line – but his entire political persona exists in tension with the Tea Party wave that brought him to the Speakership. While the Tea Party is anti-governing and anti-Washington-establishment, Mr. Boehner has been in Congress since 1991. He’s not a natural fit with that part of his caucus – and of course, that’s the part of the caucus that’s calling most of the shots these days.
As a result Speaker Boehner has spent his tenure trying to resist the President’s agenda from a minority position (never easy), as well as avoid a party insurgency (perhaps led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor). The results haven’t been pretty. With alarming frequency, Speaker Boehner has brought bills to the floor of the House only to see them voted down. That’s not supposed to happen – gauging support for a measure prior to a vote is supposed to be one of a Speaker’s most important skills. (Say what you will about Nancy Pelosi, but that woman can count votes.)
And because the Speaker’s position is precarious within his caucus, he’s not a very effective negotiator.
To his credit, it seems that he’s willing to deal. It’s true that if you listen to his public comments, he’s often as combative as the more idealogical Republicans. But of course, that’s precisely the point of his public comments: to make him more acceptable to that conservative base. Except that if he can’t convince me that he means all of it, he probably can’t convince the base either. As a result, he just can’t deliver his side of the bargain because his own party doesn’t really trust him.
The fact that John Boehner doesn’t speak authoritatively for his caucus presents a dangerous trap: the Democrats might be willing to deal some important things away in exchange for a compromise that will stick, but they’re not willing to publicly concede only to have the deal fall apart. Likewise, Mr. Boehner seems happy to strike a bargain, but not if it will cost him the Speakership.
So how does any of this make Mr. Boehner one of the winners of the government shutdown instead of exposing him as an ineffective leader? Well, it depends on what you think John Boehner values most. If his main priority is to protect his flank against a party insurgency, then he has a real problem. There is no way out of this mess that doesn’t involve some sort of compromise by the GOP and he’s the Speaker of the House – in other words, his fingerprints will have to be all over it. If he can’t get the radical members of his caucus to see the light, they might ultimately decide his scalp will have to do as a consolation prize for losing against the White House.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Boehner cares first and foremost about his policy prerogatives, then the Tea Party has handed him a rare gift: a credible and terrifying threat to wield in his negotiations with President Obama. If he were willing to risk his Speakership by bringing a bill directly to the floor of the House (and not first to the Republican caucus), then he could strike the sort of grand bargain with the President that would be a legacy achievement for both of them, precisely the sort of deal that Mr. Boehner seemed to favor two years ago. What’s more, such a bill would become law – unlike just about every other measure the House has voted on during his tenure. Though unlikely, Mr. Boehner would be able to wring maximum concessions from the White House if he were also willing to abolish the debt ceiling – a step I’ve advocated before.
Mr. Boehner’s ineffectiveness as Speaker has been largely responsible for allowing this mess to develop, but now that the shutdown is here, the Speaker is in a unique position to shape policy and move the country in the direction he thinks is best. All that requires from him is that he care more about policy than he does about his job.
I’ll go ahead and put the champagne on ice.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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