Now What?

by John Lawrence

They say a great political strategist is a chess player, able to think several moves ahead of the opponent.  A lesser talent plays checkers, which does not require the same long term strategic design.

If you believe what is being written about Speaker John Boehner and his hapless band of Tea Party activists, they are sitting around the Speaker’s conference table playing hangman – and drawing their own heads into the nooses. 

It is possible that Boehner, Cantor and the Republican House leadership are as clueless as their public pronouncements suggest, though I find it difficult to believe.  Having demanded the unachievable – the defunding of the Affordable Care Act – they have now shifted to an altogether different series of demands as their price for reopening the federal government, allowing federal employees to provide essential service, and keep the United States from descending from World Policeman to Deadbeat Former Superpower. 

One would hope there is a carefully reasoned plan waiting to be sprung. If so, the Republican leadership is hopefully as good at designing it as they are keeping it secret.

A shut-down was probably inevitable. Frankly, I’m surprised we have gone this far – nearly a year and a half – into Republican/Tea Party rule before Boehner finally had to pull the trigger to shut down the government … and prove there are no bullets in that gun.  Absent such an act of political shortsightedness, the hard core Tea Partiers would always have the upper hand, dismissing whatever conciliatory plan Boehner concocted by asserting it could have been better if only he had first pushed the self-destruct button.

Well, that option has now been used, to little effect except an avalanche of terrible press, made worse by the lack of a clear exit strategy for Republicans that doesn’t involve the humiliating capitulation of going to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and begging for votes that Boehner, as usual, cannot produce from Republicans.

And could the press get much worse for the Republicans?  Admitting this is from the highly suspect, liberal New York Times, but it is the paper the Republicans’ Wall Street pals read when settling into brunch at their Park Avenue clubs:

“We are locked in an epic battle,” declared Boehner. O.K., that’s good, the titans of Wall Street conclude; maybe he has figured out how to leverage the shutdown and debt ceiling into a restoration of the deeply mourned upper income tax cut which the Speaker was outmaneuevered into repealing last January. 

The Times continues: “Republican are only trying to survive another day, Republican strategists say, hoping to maintain unity as long as possible so that when the Republican position collapses, they can capitulate on two issues at once.”

What?!  The plan is for “double capitulation?” That sounds more like a new Starbucks drink than a way-out strategy.

“The overarching problem for the man at the center of the budget fight, say allies and opponents, is that he and his leadership team have no real idea how to resolve the fiscal showdown.”  This is a joke, right?  This is what “allies “ and “Republican strategists” are saying?  If this is true, who would believe Republicans have strategists? Or allies, for that matter.

It is worth recalling that the Tea Partiers – the original ones back in 1773 – were a little weak on long-term strategy as well.  They were well-intentioned and passionate about their budding patriotism, though it would be three long years before the Declaration of Independence formalized the design.  But after their paroxysm of anger about taxes, ending with the dumping of tea in Boston harbor, the Sons of Liberty didn’t have much of a plan for where the movement went next.  That was left up to bigger thinkers.  I’m not sure that would have been Ted Cruz.  Tea Party participants often have a great opening act; they are somewhat challenged when it comes to putting all the pieces together to make the story work.

Clearly the next steps have Speaker Boehner pretty flummoxed at the moment.  He may know where he wants to end up, but it is evident he doesn’t have a clear plan for how to get there, other than by cutting a deal with President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi yet again, and passing a bill that splinters the Republican Conference into a pack of snarling fingerpointers.  Sort of the Bizarro Hastert Rule. 

Boehner is clearly pondering his options carefully.  Former Congressman Vin Weber, a key strategist during the Gingrich Revolution, views himself as such a GOP seer.  Boehner, Weber recently said, is “not primarily concerned with saving his speakership. He’s concerned with saving the Republican Conference.”   With 800,000 federal employees pounding the pavement, the national parks and Smithsonian museums closed, intelligence gathering shrunken, U.S. prestige quivering and a default two weeks down the road, one might have thought Boehner would be more concerned with saving the country rather than his conference.

Here is a good place to note the difference between the conceptions of the speakership held by Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner.  Faced with an imminent national financial crisis, not to mention during a crucial political campaign in September-October 2008, Pelosi worked with President George W. Bush and his Cabinet and fashioned, in record time, a sweeping plan to prevent the collapse of U.S. financial markets, and save a few million jobs in the meantime.  I was Pelosi’s chief of staff at the time. I don’t remember her demanding, as the price of cooperation, that Bush accept unrelated Democratic policy priorities like background gun checks, a withdrawal from Iraq, or national health care, or even tough caps on the super-bonuses Wall Street moguls were sure to resume (and did resume) paying themselves once the taxpayers had bailed them out. 

Pelosi cut the deal she had to cut, and she sold it to a skeptical Caucus as what was good for the country, politics be damned.  And don’t kid yourself: she had to stare down plenty of angry Democrats who initially dismissed the bill she had negotiated with Bush.  And she still couldn’t get Boehner to deliver the measly 100 votes he had promised.  So she had to go back, after an initial defeat on the House floor, and rustle up more recalcitrant House Democrats because the Senate added$150 billion in additional deficit spending to the package.  That is a Speaker — leading, taking risks, and putting the country – not her speakership, her Caucus or the election — first.

Now, there is a reasonable way out here and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it ended up looking something like this:

Boehner has lost on health care defunding, as he surely knew he would.  But he still has a few gleams in his eye, including tax reform and entitlement savings, the one area of deficit discipline that has so far eluded both Obama and Congress.  Tax reform cannot be addressed in the next two weeks.  (They could agree on a timetable for a process over the next year, but that isn’t worth much.)  But entitlement reform: ah, there is a potential area for real brokering.

The two pieces of low-hanging entitlement fruit are modifications of the index used for calculating Social Security benefits and the premiums paid by upper income Medicare beneficiaries.  While President Obama has said he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling, he has made no such commitment on the shutdown, and if one comprehensive package could be fashioned, he might just be able to explain how he did not capitulate on the debt ceiling (i.e., he cut a principled deal on ending the shutdown, which happened to be included in a deal that entails resolving the debt ceiling, too).

Obama is on record as willing to look at chained CPI to modify the indexing rate, and Pelosi did not rule it out as part of a comprehensive package (although much of the Democratic Caucus would react much like Tea Partiers told they can’t defund Obamacare).  Still, as I wrote earlier this year, Democrats would do well to plant their banner somewhere more defensible than on a dubious algorithm.  As for raising Part B premiums on higher income Medicare beneficiaries, it’s probably not a deal breaker for most Democrats.  Somebody’s going to have to pay more, and it might as well be the well-to-do.

If they pull it off, this would be a stunning trifecta for Democrats.  They would have achieved more than $4 trillion in deficit reduction, cut spending, reformed entitlements and ended the upper income tax break.  Spending is down, the deficit is down, the economy is recovering.  They might have just lifted the deficit monkey off their backs while saddling Republicans as the gang that couldn’t govern.

The hard line right could continue to own the Tea Party image of angry ideologues dumping dry leaves into the water, while President Obama and Democrats (and hopefully some responsible Republicans as well) could actually make a proper cup of tea: re-opening government, paying our debts, and making modest entitlement changes that complete the deficit reduction objective for strengthening our long-term economic security.  Not a bad day at the office, even if no one was being paid.