Friday, February 11, 2011

Not Getting Any Easier For Boehner

I think Ezra Klein is correct in Wonkbook (which remains excellent, by the way -- anyone wanting to keep up with policy developments should really make it a daily must) about what really mattered in the House this week. It's how easily the leadership was rolled by the rank and file on spending:
This loss, much more than the failed votes on the extension of the PATRIOT Act or funds for the United Nations (both of which were brought to the floor under a rule requiring a 2/3rd majority for passage) shows that the House GOP leadership has little sway and less control over the rank-and-file. The Republican Study Committee seems more powerful than the Republican leadership at this point. The budget proposal produced by Rep. Jim Jordan won out over the one favored by Rep. Paul Ryan. If I were a betting man, I'd say the odds of a government shutdown -- either over cuts or the debt ceiling -- just went up dramatically.
Greg Sargent highlights the roll of outside organizations in enforcing budget-cutting orthodoxy among GOP Members of Congress, who of course are petrified of primary election challenges backed by those organizations.

I've always thought that the obvious strategy for Republican Congressional leaders was to declare victory on as many conservative issues as possible, even if all he could negotiate were some symbolic achievements -- such as, say, banning earmarks, or taking votes on Constitutional amendments. As Stan Collender said earlier this week, that seems to be the direction they're trying to go in. But if the party won't let them go that way, well, there's plenty of trouble ahead. Especially for John Boehner, but a budget shutdown could easily blow up in the faces of new GOP Members of the House.

In some ways, what we're seeing so far is two completely different approaches: Barack Obama, as is his usual style, starts by staking out a pre-compomised position and saying he's happy to work with the other side on further changes, hoping to gain the sensible center, while House Republicans will make a first offer that's set to their ideal end point, complete with lots of rhetorical insistence that they can't budget an inch. The disadvantage for the president's position is that he can't possibly get his ideal position (since he's already conceded that), that he doesn't get to make a full-throated case for what he really believes (other than the principle of compromise), and that his strongest supporters start out upset with him.

The GOP strategy has disadvantages of its own.They will almost certainly wind up casting tough votes (from a general election point of view -- in other words, they'll vote to cut popular spending) that they can't enact into law. When they compromise, and they'll certainly have to do that, they'll eventually have to backtrack, pass something more moderate, and therefore flip-flop. Also, since this is a repeated game, if they develop a reputation for phony brinkmanship, they may wind up hurting their bargaining strength in the next rounds. That is, what we're talking about right now is the remainder of the current fiscal year budget -- remember, the Democrats botched the job last year, and so the government is running on a temporary extension that runs out  in March. But after that comes the budget for the next fiscal year, and then the one after that, and meanwhile all sorts of other issues will have to be hashed out. If Republicans are perceived as folding on this one, that hurts their chances for winning on those.

What's more, the sense -- and, if it's the case, the reality -- that Boehner and the rest of the leadership may not be able to speak for their conference may make their task close to impossible.

Remember, we don't know how it's going to play out. What we're talking about is the public side of negotiations, and we don't know what the true bottom line is for any of the players. For House GOPers and the outside organizations that are egging them on, one can imagine at least three possible situations. One is that they believe, as a matter of negotiating strategy, that the best thing to do is start off as far to one side as possible, because negotiators inevitably wind up splitting the difference between the two opening positions (many Democrats have criticized Obama on those grounds, although at least in my view it involves a misunderstanding of how bargaining works). A second possibility is that whatever the rank-and-file believes now, once things get going (and after they record their initial votes for their preferred policy) they will be willing to go along with whatever the leadership tells them is possible.

The third possibility is the dangerous one: that there are a very large number of Members who for reasons either of political calculation or true belief will always find "reject Washington deals" to be the best course of action. If that turns out to be the case -- and it very well might be -- Boehner will have little choice but to start down the path to confrontation, and once it starts he'll find it very, very difficult to dig out.

The truth is it's not hard at all to imagine Republican disaster: Republicans refuse to pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running at current levels of funding while negotiations continue; Democrats refuse to pass a short-term resolution keeping government running that includes Republican spending cuts; the government shuts down; broad majorities favor the president's position; but Republican constituencies demand that House Republicans hold strong, and House Republicans don't really care about (or believe) what most American think, responding only to their base voters who think everything is going well. Surely, it's hard to imagine Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity interpreting the polling any other way, isn't it?

Either way, it's going to be very, very difficult for John Boehner to emerge from any kind of deal with the support of the Republican partisan media. And if they turn strongly against him, it's not at all clear to me that he can survive. Again, the way around that for him was to just declare victory on something that the Democrats could live with because it was mostly symbolic. What's important about the budget news this week is that it's looking less and less like he'll be able to get away with that.

Anyway, the point is that all three of those bottom lines are consistent with what we've seen so far, and also that the third one seems quite plausible to me. It may be a very interesting next couple of months.


  1. so that's why they're pushing all that anti-abortion bullsh!t?

  2. Why do you think that broad majorities of the electorate will support the president in a government shutdown? Because they did with the Clinton/Gingrich shutdowns, or another reason? I mean, Democrats will support the president, and Republicans will support the House majority. Why do you in effect predict that moderates and/or independents will break for the president?

  3. Anon,

    There are some good structural reasons to believe it. The president has a (much) bigger megaphone, for one thing. For another, it's easier for him to coordinate his message (and actions) than it is for Boehner's 250+ voices. For yet another, polling suggests that the Republicans have the (much) less popular side of the issue going in. For yet another thing, Obama is generally more popular than Boehner going in. And for yet another thing, everybody hates Congress (always -- not this particular Congress).

    It's possible it could go the other way, but that's a lot of things lined up on the same side.

  4. No wonder the poor fellow's weeping all the time.

  5. I think the issue comes down to how vigorously the partisans on each side really believe and support their side. The teabaggers and such REALLY REALLY believe in their position and would be more than glad to see the government shut down and any bad consequences that brings. On the other hand I don't see dems being that committed to their position....either the ones in congress or out in the hinterlands. And Obama, as you say, compromises before the debate has even begun. We're going to have another shutdown and this time I suspect that the house repubs are going to win the day simply because their supporters are just more vocal and obnoxious than everybody else. You can expect demonstrations in the streets of washington and all manner of nefariousness from these people and that's just going to scare the crap out of the dems who are already scared of their own shadow. I think this isn't going to work out well for the prez.

  6. Jonathan, what about the possibility that the most vulnerable Republicans would simply blink before voting for a government shutdown? If Boehner can see the problems inherent in a government shutdown, surely they can as well; and even if there's 130+ GOP congressmen for massive cuts, there have to be a couple of dozen who just don't want to lose their seats next year.

  7. Another consideration is the way government shutdowns actually work. The WH has full control of the actual process, but gets to blame any inconvenience to the public on Congress, which as JB says is always and inherently unpopular.

    'Sorry folks, Yellowstone National Park is closed until Congress passes a budget.'

    On top of which, the loudest GOP voices won't be the leadership but the cranks - who are good at appealing to their own fervent supporters, but not so much the relatively nonpolitical general public.

  8. Anon, two problems with your analysis.

    One, while the Tea Partiers might certainly believe in their position, they're not the entire House Republican Caucus. It's become pretty clear in the last week or so that Republican Leaders do NOT believe that $100 billion dollars of spending cuts are worth shutting down the government. And leadership will be the ones getting the most press.

    Two, just being the loudest and most obnixious doesn't guarantee you victory. There's a short, short list of people who can out-shrill Newt Gingrich, but look how that went.

    Third, while it's popular and far less than innacurate to talk about the Dems' skittishness, they're pretty clearly spoiling for this fight. Cantor was technically wrong when he said Dems are the only ones talking about a shut down, but only by a little bit. That doesn't mean they won't back off. But it's not a strong bet that the rump Dem Caucus, far more ideological and devoted to Pelosi than ever before, already holding the line on HCR, and damn near gleeful at the thought of this fight, will suddenly become so scared they'll back off when the public really is on their side.

  9. Anon here...again. I think the "rest" of the republican party is scared out of their pants by the tea party. And you surely heard either cantor or ryan talking about how great it was to not be talking about whether to cut but how much to cut?? The tea party has shown how disruptive it can be. I really think that Boner is going to cave to them.

    Secondly.....I am assuming that the republicans have learned from the previous shutdown. I expect their messaging to be much better and I really don't trust the public on this. It's so easy to muddy the waters these days.

    Thirdly.....Obama is no Bill. And he's also saddled with having Harry Reid as his congressional leader on the hill. Sorry but that just ain't a good situation.

    There's really no way to predict at this point but I think we'll have a shutdown and dems are going to be blamed by the public. I'd love to be wrong.

  10. I'm not saying Boehner won't cave to them, but by definition, if he's caving, he doesn't really believe in what he's doing. And you indicated that true belief was going to give them an advantage. But it doesn't look like they'll even have that.

    But honestly, the quality of communications here only has limited value, no matter how good it is (and while your assumption makes sense, the Republicans have actually been very poor on this issue so far- breaking a campaign promise, arguing about accounting, releasing their proposal right when Obama wanted them to, then backtracking and all the while making a shut down sound more and more extreme). Their are structural factors that just play right into Obama's hands (the fact that POTUS can structure any shutdown, the constant disparity between Presidential and Congressional support, the wide gap between Obama's support and Boehner's, public support for the programs Republicans would cut, a Senate Majority, one voice vs. hundreds, etc.) Not saying Republicans can't overcome all that, but I wouldn't count on them doing so just because they're a little better at finessing their message than Dems are.

    And also, while Obama has Reid- horror of horrors, the man who delivered his caucus for HCR- Clinton had DASCHLE. In the MINORITY. Sorry, but that's just a much worse situation.


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