House Speaker John Boehner will soon abandon one of the top posts in American politics — and conservatives have made it clear that they will not miss him. As Ted Cruz triumphantly cackled to an audience at the Values Voters Summit on Sept. 25: “Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y’all come to town, and somehow that changes. My only request is: Can you come more often?” Soon, the thinking goes, Republicans will be rid of this establishment sellout, and the stage will be set for a real conservative uprising.
It’s hard to believe, given this rhetoric, that Boehner could have fundamentally altered the balance of power between Congress and President Barack Obama to conservatives’ long-term benefit. What happened?
The key moment came in the summer of 2011. The White House, reeling from the disastrous 2010 midterms, saw the tea party’s ascendance as proof that it had to turn its attention to the deficit. It entered into budget talks with GOP leaders, whose rank and file included many new members who had vowed not to increase the nation’s debt ceiling — meaning that they would allow the government to default on its debts unless the president agreed to huge spending cuts.
The leadership at the time encouraged this hardline approach: Freshly minted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the caucus earlier that year, “I’m asking you to look at a potential increase in the debt limit as a leverage moment when the White House and President Obama will have to deal with us.” As Noam Scheiber has reported, the White House at first refused even to consider this option. But by mid-April, the White House “blinked, acknowledging that deficit reduction could be part of the negotiation over the debt limit.”
It’s now clear that the Obama administration badly misjudged its opposition when it chose to include deficit talks as part of the debt-ceiling increase. Deficit fearmongering is nothing new in Washington, of course — but the emboldened Republicans were not sententious Beltway elders delivering stern sermons about belt-tightening. They were a highly energized ideological bloc that saw cost-cutting as an inherent good, and they were wholly untroubled by warnings of economic calamity.
These insurgents had in John Boehner a potentially historic leader, though they didn’t realize it at the time. After talks in spring and summer produced no agreement, President Obama held out hope for a deal as the August deadline crept nearer. Then, in late July, Obama agreed to (among other things) big cuts in Medicare and Social Security. In return, he wanted the comparatively small sum of $800 billion in new tax revenue over the next decade. And although the White House hoped to bring in that revenue by raising taxes, there’s some evidence that they contemplated accepting a “tax reform”-based alternative that, according to Republican economic dogma, would raise the $800 billion by cutting taxes, simplifying the code, and thereby generating the money through an anticipated burst of economic growth.
Nobody knows exactly what went on behind the scenes, but at some point, Obama’s calls to Boehner started going unanswered. It became clear that the great budget compromise was dead.
The most likely story is that when Boehner took the deal back to his caucus members, they saw the offer as a confirmation of their darkest suspicions: The Speaker had sold them out. They were being reduced from ideologically pure insurgents to base dealmakers — and, to top it off, being asked to stomach larger government revenue, which in their eyes was as heretical as higher taxes.
As the optimism for a late July compromise gave way to bitter recriminations, Boehner grew more and more unpopular on all sides: Democrats saw him as unreliable because he lacked control over his caucus, and tea partiers resented his failure to hold the line with the White House (not to mention the mortal sin of so much as entertaining raising taxes).
When default was ultimately averted, observers predicted that the GOP’s largely successful blackmail would set a dangerous new precedent. But the GOP had come off as reckless, and the president felt burned. A compromise budget deal, if it had succeeded, would have done far more to cement the budget-slashers’ superiority. Had the tea partiers backed the deal Obama was so desperate to make, their brinksmanship would have been vindicated in the eyes of deficit scolds who would view any substantial reduction in entitlement spending as a victory. They would have birthed a powerful new norm: No debt-ceiling increase until there’s a budget compromise.
Had this paradigm stuck, the GOP could have ushered in a huge shift in the balance of power between the president and Congress, and one that was overwhelmingly to conservatives’ benefit. The debt ceiling could have become a periodic opportunity for one party to engage in the costly high-stakes ritual of budget politics, which 2011’s great bipartisan budget deal made possible.
How many social programs might have been gutted before Congress finally dropped the ritual? Happily, we’ll never know. Boehner might have wanted to take the deal Obama was offering, but he couldn’t get his caucus to sign on. For their purity, the tea partiers made the president dead set against ever negotiating over the debt ceiling again. It was a symbolic victory, in the same way that Boehner’s resignation is a symbolic victory. They’d already squandered the chance he created for them to profoundly reshape American politics.
With that path untaken, Boehner will go down as an ineffectual leader devoured by his own revolutionaries. But if those revolutionaries had given him the chance, he might have delivered them a lasting victory.