The Incredible Shrinking Speaker

After last night's humiliation, John Boehner looks mighty small. He should abandon his right wing, as it abandoned him, and start thinking big.


Two weeks ago, when John Boehner broke off negotiations with President Obama to strike a grand bargain that would raise the debt ceiling and also reform the tax code and some entitlements, I wrote about what I called the "Boehner illusion" -- the idea, touted by Boehner himself, that far from being a weak leader helplessly in thrall to his right wing, he was cannily employing a strategy of selective deferral to build trust and confidence, so that when he most needed support, the right wing would be there for him. 

Well, they weren't there for him. Not when it came to striking a grand bargain. And not even when it came to passing a simple debt-ceiling measure that had already been amended once in an effort to placate them. (Boehner obviously anticipated otherwise, and to reconjure the illusion of power, his supporters were spreading tales of how he demanded that recalcitrant members "get their ass in line.") The current assumption in Washington -- although these things change practically minute by minute -- is that Boehner will amend his bill yet again in a desperate, final attempt to get it through and save face, essentially handing a pen to the Tea Party hardliners and having them make whatever changes they require.

But I don't see what he gains by this. If he succeeds, he'll have moved even further to the right, which will make the eventual bipartisan compromise seem like that much more of a rebuke to the very right-wingers he's laboring to satisfy. And Boehner will have to rely on Democrats to get it through. As bad as he looks right now, he'll look even worse then. The only thing he can know for certain is that the Tea Party faction in the House isn't going to support whatever is the final compromise. 

Boehner is significantly diminished. So why not change tack and go big? At any point he could revive negotiations with Obama on a grand bargain. This would be a significant, and even historic, accomplishment that Boehner clearly longed for and that remains well within his grasp. He walked away earlier because he didn't want to risk losing his right wing. But as last night's humiliation showed, he never had them to begin with. Why not acknowledge this reality and proceed accordingly? Practically the only saving grace for Boehner is that Eric Cantor, the self-appointed leader of the House Tea Party faction, suffered just as great a rebuke as his own. He's hardly in a position to challenge Boehner over an act of apostasy -- especially one that cut trillions more from the deficit than anything currently on the table.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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