Extremes are always their own side’s worst enemy.
Speaker John Boehner’s failure to cobble together enough conservative votes to pass his Plan B is not just bad news for Boehner. It is bad news for the Republican Party and the country.
Not only is the path to avoiding the fiscal cliff now far less clear; Boehner’s position as speaker is imperiled.
This is a symbol of the sickness in our politics: a dogged dealmaker like Boehner is left stranded in the center, while irresponsible ideological activists in his own party encourage insurrection. It’s a no-win situation for the nation because his potential successors—Eric Cantor and Jeb Hensarling—would be even less likely to try and make a deal with the Obama White House.
The now-inevitable Christmastime talk about a conservative congressional coup will be focused on finding an even more rigid and ideologically pure leader of the party. That means someone who would rather charge off the cliff than raise taxes on families who make more than $1 million a year. If successful, it would mean even more polarization and paralysis for the next years—a complete misreading of the election results, with potentially devastating effects on our economy.
On Monday, it seemed as if the speaker and the president were coming close to a deal—both men had made significant concessions, with Boehner agreeing to raise tax rates for those making more than $1 million a year while President Obama lowered his revenue goals and agreed to entitlement reform by changing the formula for Social Security payments. The $2 trillion savings plan wouldn’t solve our deficit and debt problem, but it would mark a major step forward—a solid foundation for a productive second term. The remaining gaps were significant but far from unbridgeable.
Midweek, Boehner switched gears to play offense with a Plan B that would have prevented tax hikes for 99.5 percent of Americans. This was always a bit of congressional kabuki theater, because Plan B was DOA in the Senate. But it backfired big time when Boehner and Co. couldn’t get the votes late Thursday night—more than 24 conservative votes were bolting and so Plan B was scuttled. Reeling, leadership sent out a terse email to their members: “The House has concluded legislative business for the week. Members are advised that the House will return for legislative business after the Christmas holiday when needed.”
That means no action on the dozens of outstanding items, ranging from the fiscal cliff to saving the postal service to supplemental funds for Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. These bills have been held back by conservative opposition and when Congress reconvenes on the 27th, they will have four days until the end of the year to solve them all. This is not a recipe for success. That’s why stock market futures fell 1.5 percent over the news. Most folks don’t take a vacation when there is urgent business left undone.
Boehner’s statement on the nonvote sounded like an admission of impotence: “Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.”
In the short run, the 25+ conservative congressmen who refused to support Boehner’s Plan B gambit have only weakened their party’s hand in the fiscal-cliff negotiations and made it less likely that their priorities will be reflected in any final package. These are people who would rather ruin if they cannot rule. Because if a deal is made, it will be made with Democrats unified on the heels of an election they won handily. After all, the fact that Republicans held on to the House is more a function of the rigged system of redistricting than a gauge of real ticket splitting—Democratic House candidates received a million more votes than Republican House candidates nationwide.
It is now obvious that Boehner does not control a clear majority of votes in Congress. That means that any deal will be passed without the support of the far right or far left, just as the ultimate debt-ceiling deal in the summer of 2011 did. The extremes do not increase their leverage in this scenario, but they could compel the center in both parties to find a way to work together to keep the country from going off the cliff and hurting the economy with a devastating combination of broad-based tax-hikes and spending cuts.
Beneath this dynamic is a Republican brand that is deeply tarnished. A new CNN poll shows that for the first time, a majority of Americans view the Republican Party as “too extreme”—up 17 percentage points since the fall of 2010, before the Tea Party election. Moreover, 53 percent of Americans say Republicans should be willing to compromise more in fiscal-cliff negotiations—but that’s the opposite of the message conservatives are sending to their leadership. Theirs is a worldview where any compromise on taxes equals death. By putting ideological purity ahead of the good of the country or the good of their party, they are revealing a streak of nihilism—“some men just want to watch the world burn,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson tweeted after the vote.
Now the knives will be out in the conservative caucus as members of GOP leadership reenact roles more suited to the Roman Senate. If Boehner is slain, it will be a cautionary tale that his conference will learn the exact wrong lesson. President Obama, in the meantime, might find himself actually missing his Orange-hued negotiating partner—Boehner is plenty conservative, but he is also a practical politician. By definition, ideologues are not.
All this fiddling is occurring while Rome burns—and our recovery hangs in the balance. America lost its triple-A credit rating over the last game of chicken. As the S&P said: “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.” This failure only compounds that complaint.
If we’re at a time when a conservative dealmaker like Speaker John Boehner is called a RINO, a more fundamental problem is at work, which Boehner can ruminate on in his memoirs: Golem ultimately turns on its creator.
In the meantime, the rest of us will have to live with the results. Merry Cliffmas.