In de­fense of John Boehner

The shut­down strug­gle has af­forded the House speaker new au­thor­ity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jef­frey H. Birn­baum

Few politi­cians of late have been as pil­lo­ried as House Speaker John A. Boehner. He was attacked as an ide­o­logue by Democrats and as a sell­out by some Repub­li­cans. He is nei­ther. In fact, by lead­ing a uni­fied Repub­li­can House, he has so­lid­i­fied his po­si­tion in a way that has been widely un­der­re­ported. Friends of Mr. Boehner were con­fused by his stead­fast sup­port of the shut­down cau­cus in the House. He has had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a main­stream Repub­li­can with a bias to­ward sup­port­ing rather than re­ject­ing gov­ern­ment as a means of progress. He would have been among the last peo­ple to em­brace a gov­ern­ment shut­down, es­pe­cially af­ter the de­ba­cle dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion that helped end the ca­reer of one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Newt Gin­grich.

That is a short­sighted view. The speaker clearly made a strate­gic choice. A shut­down was the price he had to pay to place him­self in the good graces of the resur­gent right wing of his party. He paid the price so that he did not have to take the next, far more dan­ger­ous step — putting the gov­ern­ment in dan­ger of de­fault. A tem­po­rary shut­down of gov­ern­ment is one thing. A U.S.-caused col­lapse of in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial mar­kets is another en­tirely.

Mr. Boehner knew this, and he acted ac­cord­ingly. He could not stand firm against ev­ery­thing his young bucks de­manded and still re­tain the re­spect he needed to lead, so he chose the lesser evil. Clearly, his de­ci­sion paid off. The shut­down was a mess, but it was not the de­ba­cle a debt de­fault would have been.

The po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere has changed sig­nif­i­cantly in the mean­time. There’s no more talk of a coup against the speaker. He is, in fact, much stronger than he was be­fore the shut­down. What’s more, the blow­back from the shut­down has chas­tened Repub­li­cans. The chance of a re­peat any­time soon is ap­proach­ing zero, which surely must se­cretly please the speaker. A debt de­fault re­mains com­pletely off the ta­ble.

Mr. Boehner has added to his po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal. He has wig­gle room with his Repub­li­can col­leagues. He has earned their trust and sup­port and now has lee­way to do what he thinks is right. There’s a limit to that flex­i­bil­ity, of course, but the di­rec­tion he chooses to go in is more than ever the di­rec­tion House Repub­li­cans are likely to go.

That’s a new and promis­ing de­vel­op­ment. Those who doubt there’s even a pos­si­bil­ity of a ma­jor deal on the bud­get are prob­a­bly cor­rect. If Mr. Boehner tries again to ad­vance one, though, it might ac­tu­ally have a shot. Cer­tainly, the prospects for tax re­form would im­prove sig­nif­i­cantly if Mr. Boehner gave it his bless­ing.

In­deed, the speaker, who looked for a long time like the big­gest loser in Wash­ing­ton, has man­aged through ad­ver­sity to come out a win­ner. Keep­ing faith with his in­sur­gent wing has given him a real power base from which to work. The ques­tion is: What will he do with his new-found au­thor­ity? Even a re­vived speaker can’t muster enough sup­port for a broad im­mi­gra­tion bill. He prob­a­bly knows such leg­is­la­tion is in the long-term in­ter­est of his party, but the Democrats’ ap­proach and his own are so dis­parate that the two can never be rec­on­ciled — at least not dur­ing this elec­tion cy­cle.

A far more prob­a­ble av­enue for com­pro­mise is the bud­get con­fer­ence that was man­dated in the wake of the shut­down. If not a grand bar­gain, then maybe a gran­u­lar bar­gain is pos­si­ble. One op­tion: re­con­fig­ur­ing the au­to­matic cuts called se­ques­tra­tion so they don’t hit so ran­domly. Another op­tion: fi­nally de­vis­ing a start to en­ti­tle­ment re­form. That would be fun­da­men­tal to cor­rect­ing the fed­eral bud­get’s chronic im­bal­ance.

No one could be blamed for think­ing that noth­ing will ever get done in Wash­ing­ton, ow­ing to all the back­bit­ing and par­ti­san­ship that fes­ters there. But one lit­tle-told rea­son that some­thing im­por­tant might ac­tu­ally hap­pen is the re­turn to power of John A. Boehner. Jef­frey Birn­baum is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, a Fox News con­trib­u­tor and pres­i­dent of BGR Pub­lic Re­la­tions.

ILLUSTRATION BY ALEXAN­DER HUNTER

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