Commentary Magazine


Is Boehner’s Endgame a Debt Deal?

It’s day two of the government shutdown and, contrary to the expectations of optimists on both sides of the political divide, neither House Speaker John Boehner nor President Obama appears to be blinking. But no one should be under the impression that the two are fighting this battle on an equal footing.

The president has a united Democratic Party behind him with the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media cheering him on from the sidelines and portraying his foes as either clowns or terrorists holding the nation hostage. Boehner can’t even count on all of the Republicans in the House, let alone a Senate minority caucus, most of which never wanted any part of this circus. And with complaints about the hardships being caused by the shutdown—whether it is to cancer patients or national intelligence—rising Democrats see no reason why they should allow House Republicans to alleviate some suffering in the bills they are attempting to pass today. Despite the president’s invitation to congressional leaders to come the White House later today, we’ve been told he won’t negotiate.

Since the president is not only not negotiating but also acting as if nothing short of unconditional surrender by the GOP will satisfy him, it’s little wonder that a lot of the smart money has been on Boehner folding sometime in the next couple of days. That possibility can’t be discounted, but even with some of his caucus wavering, the desire of many Republicans to dig in their heels and wait for the debt-ceiling deadline to approach may enable Boehner to hold on for longer than many thought possible.

Keeping this standoff going until Congress must raise the debt ceiling is potentially an even more dangerous strategy for Republicans than their original idea to tie continuation of government funding to a demand to ditch or delay ObamaCare. As the days go by, the government shutdown is—despite the histrionic attempts by the administration to hype the impact—appearing as more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe, let alone a tragedy. But going to the brink on paying the national debt is the sort of thing that can create genuine economic problems that can’t be paid for by stunts like the Republican National Committee’s attempt to pay for keeping the World War II Memorial open. Should Republicans wind up getting the blame for a default as well as a shutdown, the blowback will be considerable and perhaps even felt by red-state stalwarts who theoretically have nothing to fear from the electorate.

It’s worth restating that the strategy of trying to stop ObamaCare by refusing to fund the government was a colossal error by the Republicans. Speaker Boehner and many GOP members of the House and the Senate didn’t want to do it but were dragged into it by a faction of their caucus determined to plunge the party off the cliff on the issue. The shutdown has transformed the president from the weakling who got pushed around by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin into the tough guy that won’t back down from the GOP. But it’s possible that Boehner has gotten in so deep he can’t find a rationale that will enable him to escape this dilemma. Having arrived at this point, a precipitate retreat now might hurt his ability to hang on as speaker as much as ignoring the Tea Party prior to this week might have done.

So while it’s difficult to imagine what Boehner’s endgame can possibly be, the approach of a new, far more urgent deadline might give him a glimmer of hope. It is possible that even though Obama’s position has never been stronger or the president more confident of victory, Boehner may think he can trade the end of the shutdown for a debt deal that he can sell to his party as at least a partial victory. If so, even though the GOP position seems hopeless and about to get even worse, holding out for another few days or even a couple of weeks might cause the president to start sweating. And once that happens, a deal over some elements of the budget or some of the secondary issues with ObamaCare, such as elimination of the congressional exemptions or the medical device tax or something that won’t look like Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, is theoretically possible.

If that doesn’t sound to you like a coherent plan or viable political strategy, you’re right, it isn’t. But it’s all John Boehner has right now, and barring a massive defection of GOP members in the next 24 hours, it may be what Republicans are waiting for.

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