For years, House Speaker John Boehner has desired a “grand bargain” with President Obama to dramatically reform government and strike a deal on taxes, spending and a host of other issues. He even came close to succeeding three years ago.
The idea was interesting, at least as an intellectual exercise. The pitch given by both the White House and the speaker to the media was that implacable ideological foes would be pursuing a compromise with one another for the good of the country. The resulting deal would be something beyond partisan divisions that would drag each party — kicking and screaming against its will — to a place it did not want to go.
One of the reasons it never happened was because the advertising didn’t match the product. Far from a fair and equitable deal cut between weary adversaries who were each giving up a lot, and getting a lot in return, Boehner’s negotiating posture was weak and the details of the deal that materialized were unsatisfactorily weighted toward President Obama’s position.
That ultimate failure to get a deal done has always left a foul taste in the speaker’s mouth. After coming to power, Boehner began to view himself as a selfless statesman, seeking to moderate the rough edges of his own caucus and compromise with an implacable political enemy.
He wanted a legacy — something big he could attribute to his leadership that he would be remembered for. The failure of the grand bargain (thankfully, in my opinion) denied him legacy.
Yet he never let go of that desire, even as his Republican caucus became more ideologically conservative and less interested in his machinations. Indeed, it was that desire, coupled with an authoritarian and closed management of the House of Representatives, that led to his ultimate resignation.
But Boehner had one final trick up his sleeve.
After Rep. Kevin McCarthy withdrew from the speaker’s race, I jokingly suggested to a friend that the entire episode was a cunning Machiavellian scheme by Boehner to remain speaker forever without having to worry about leadership challenges and ideological insurrections undermining him.
My logic went a little something like this: Boehner knew that stepping down as speaker would create a vacuum of power and spark a bitter internal civil war. The GOP is so divided and so fractured that no one group (the now famous Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday group, etc.) would be all that interested in supporting a candidate backed by another, and as such no unifying figure would emerge.
With the House in disarray and his announced resignation meaning he was no longer afraid of the conservative rebellions ousting him in a coup, Boehner could remain speaker indefinitely and would be free to basically do whatever he wanted in his remaining time.
That joke appears to have become a reality, as Boehner has taken his newfound freedom and negotiated a sweeping budget deal with the White House. While not the grand bargain Boehner has been long searching for, this new deal is a gift-wrapped present to the White House, giving in on several major conservative priorities while getting very little in return.
The deal raises the debt limit significantly (hello $20 trillion national debt!), to take government into March 2017. It also raises spending caps on both domestic spending and defense spending.
And what did Boehner get in his negotiations? I’m still trying to figure it out.
I’ve always described myself as a rather hard-line libertarian, though I believe pretty strongly in incrementalism and the necessity of compromise to achieve goals. This final shameful episode in Boehner’s tenure as speaker, however, shows once again the real problem in today’s Republican establishment leadership.
That problem isn’t compromise, it is weakness. It isn’t willingness to talk, it is eagerness to deal. It is, fundamentally, a belief that keeping the trains running on time is the first and most important goal of statesmanship.
Boehner is essentially the guy who walks into a car dealership and is so eager for the salesman to like him that he fails to challenge or argue his position in the transaction. He smiles, says yes to the sticker price, and shakes hands believing that the purchase alone is some kind of life accomplishment.
It isn’t. There is a fine line between a collaborator and a true statesman.
A statesman’s job is to have an unrelenting nerve and a steel will, and to seek what is best for the country. Making government functional is certainly part of that, but so is being a persistent and aggressive advocate for your beliefs, and forcing your opponents to both fear and respect you. That wasn’t John Boehner.