When House Speaker John Boehner told a shocked Republican caucus this morning that he would allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached, it was seen in some quarters as a defeat for the GOP. And, in many ways, it was. A clean debt-ceiling resolution gives President Obama exactly what he wants and signals that there will be no attempt in 2014 by either political party to rein in the deluge of federal spending that feeds a national debt that keeps going up with no limit in sight. It also demonstrates that Boehner has failed yet again to get even a majority of his Republican members, let alone of the entire House, to vote for a bill that would link an increase in the debt ceiling with even modest measures aimed at trimming spending. Boehner was not even capable of passing a bill tied to a popular measure such as reversing cuts in veteran benefits. Most of the GOP caucus seems only interested in another apocalyptic fight to drastically cut spending and refuses to vote for any of Boehner’s compromises, leaving him no choice but to let the debt ceiling go through without strings and relying on the votes of Democrats.
Boehner expressed grave disappointment over his inability to speak for his caucus or to lead them to support a sensible approach to the issue as well as the futility of his efforts to chip away at the debt. Those are troubling developments, both for the speaker and the GOP. But rather than mourning Boehner’s decision, Republicans should be celebrating. A partisan confrontation over the debt ceiling—even one in which Republicans tie support for the increase to sensible spending cuts or a popular measure aimed at helping veterans—would have turned into a repeat of last fall’s political melodrama that ended so badly for the GOP.
The fact that a majority of the House GOP was too stubborn to back the speaker’s efforts to use the debt ceiling in an attempt to push for less spending may have granted the president what he wanted. But Boehner’s waving of the white flag on the debt ceiling also denies the Democrats the only issue that might have helped them win the 2014 midterm elections: a repeat of the GOP’s disastrous government shutdown. Today’s outcome allows Republicans to spend the upcoming months concentrating their fire on the president’s failed policies and the ObamaCare fiasco that threatens to drown the Democrats in a sea of lost insurance coverage, lost jobs, and a stalled economy rather than in defending another suicidal stand that would accomplish nothing but to strengthen their liberal opponents.
Much as he did before to the shutdown fight, Boehner tried to enlist conservative House members in an approach to the debt ceiling rooted in Tea Party’s concern over more spending, but would have sought to conduct the fight from the high ground of a popular position. But any reluctance to pay for the debt and to allow it to continue to increase—no matter how reasonable the strings that would have been attached to a GOP plan—was a political loser. Americans don’t like debt or big government spending in principle, but they also know that any attempt to bring a halt to the spending binge in a partisan manner could do real damage to the country’s credit rating and ultimately the economy as a whole.
Just as they did during the shutdown battle, Democrats deserve a lot of the blame for the failure to act on the debt. Their refusal to negotiate in good faith on either ObamaCare or spending caused the shutdown as much as the kamikaze instincts of Tea Party Republicans. But shutting down the government, even over ObamaCare funding, was deeply unpopular. The same applies to debt ceiling negotiations in which Democrats have also refused to deal fairly or address the country’s long-term problems.
It may be unfair that the GOP is blamed more than the Democrats for shutdowns or debt fights, but that is irrelevant to a political reality in which liberal domination of the mainstream media creates a distorted playing field. If Republicans want to win elections, they have to stay away from situations in which the media can brand them as irrational extremists, which is exactly what happened with the shutdown. As bad as things look for Boehner and his dysfunctional crew today, avoiding a debt-ceiling showdown denies the president and his party another chance to portray Republicans as irresponsible obstructionists who can’t be trusted with the serious task of governing.
Letting Democrats pass the debt increase is a bitter pill for Boehner and the GOP to swallow. But by doing it, they have also set the stage for a 2014 campaign that can be fought on their terms rather than those of the Democrats. That gives them a good chance not only to win back control of the Senate but to gain House seats and set themselves up for a 2015 session in which the party can not only begin to reverse the damage Obama has done but also set the stage for a return to the White House in 2016. All that was made possible by Boehner’s surrender. Given the stakes involved, that’s the sort of exchange that conservatives should like.