Boehner: Embracing the Cycle or Fighting It?

by John Lawrence

Harvard historian and JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. described in The Cycles of American History recurrent patterns that have occurred throughout American history. Of late it seems, some Republicans seem to taking a lesson from the liberal historian’s book, while other seem content to defy the lessons of history.

Schlesinger argued these cycles reflect the “recurring struggle between pragmatism and idealism.” While far from conclusive of a new cycle, there are tentative signs that that we may have reached the apex of the Tea Party/hard right/anti-government phase of recent political history, which some might describe as the most recent “idealism” phase.

Three developments bear discussion:

• Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, his eye obviously focused on 2016, offers unorthodox (if confusing) views on immigration reform;

• Iconoclast New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, contemplating both re-election this year and a 2016 national race as well, becomes the latest big name Republican governor to bow to the inevitable and agrees to buy into the Affordable Care Act’s generous Medicaid expansion;

• Speaker John Boehner brings legislation to the House floor without the support of a sizeable of a majority of his House Republican conference, passing bills on tax increases, Hurricane Sandy relief, and Violence Against Women with overwhelming Democratic votes.

In the context of the Republicans’ hard-headed, take-no-prisoners, over-the-cliff confrontational behavior of the past four years, these are interesting developments. Given the choice between conservative ideological purity and national interest, some in the GOP have actually decided to step away from the brinkmanship and consider acting like responsible leaders.

It is too early for celebration, of course. First, there seems more demonstrable a shift among those who either are toying with national campaigns (Jeb Bush) or seeking re-election in Democratic strongholds (Christie) than among congressional Republicans who largely seem as obstinate as ever. This distinction reflects the substantial difference between Republican governors, who have little ability to deflect criticism for underperformance, and Republicans in the House and Senate, who can always find a Democrat to blame and who, unlike governors, daily cast votes that make it difficult to conceal their record.

Yet on those three occasions, Speaker Boehner has chosen to behave like the “let’s-get-something-done,” pragmatic conservative he was during his years as chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce when he churned out substantive legislation in partnership with the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy and Ranking Democrat George Miller. In those days also, Boehner took legislation to the floor that was viewed askance by many members of his conference.

Boehner’s edge has hardened significantly since those days a decade ago as a result of the Tea Party infusion of 2010 that made him Speaker and his running feud with President Obama. And yet, time and again in the woefully underproductive 112th Congress of 2011-2013, Boehner passed legislation only because of Democratic votes, including continuing resolutions to keep the government from closing and the July, 2011, budget deal. Now he has begun 2013 the way he ended the 112th Congress – bringing forward bills that only pass with Democratic votes, in some cases, without even winning a majority of Republican House votes.

Given the uncertainties about Boehner’s re-electability as Speaker last January, when some portrayed him as insufficiently committed to the Tea Party cause and others thought him ill-suited to prevail in confrontations with a strengthened President Obama, the decision to proceed with legislation like the Senate-passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) bears scrutiny. How long, many wonder, can Boehner continue to bring forward bills his own House Republicans dislike?

The answer is: not long. Boehner will undoubtedly draw in the bipartisan gangplank any moment now as House Republicans revert to what they do best: advocate impractical budget proposals that have no chance to make it through a conference committee. Maybe it doesn’t matter: with the budget cutting sequester in place, perhaps to the end of the fiscal year, and Republicans trying to manipulate the Defense spending restrictions to relieve some pressure on the Pentagon, this is a good time for Boehner to let Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, and Paul Ryan take center stage with partisan propagandistic proposals that are designed to fire up the base rather than power down the deficit.

Boehner’s real challenge will come if the Senate is able to send the House either an immigration bill or gun violence bill from which much of his conference will recoil but which will enjoy broad public approval. Neither of those developments may actually occur, but if they do, Boehner would face the Fiscal Cliff/VAWA conundrum again: move ahead on a non-budget/non-tax bill that has broad support (including from much of the business community), or allow the Republican conference to bottle up consensus legislation that passed the Senate. And that will be the moment when Speaker Boehner will have to decide whether he is leading a cycle that marks the rise of Republican reasonableness, or if he is content to be a partisan obstructionist happy to continue the cycle of Republican electoral losses.