Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
Here are a few things that happened to John Boehner, ostensibly one of the most powerful men in Washington, during the past two weeks.
First his own backbenchers blew up his attempt at a “fiscal cliff” negotiating maneuver. Then he had to step back and let Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell hammer out the details of the deal, which he then had to shepherd through his own legislative body with more Democratic than Republican votes. The next day he was dressed down on national television by a grandstanding Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. The day after that, Boehner survived an utterly incompetent revolt against his re-election as speaker of the House.
These tribulations have earned Boehner press coverage that’s sympathetic without being particularly respectful. It’s increasingly taken for granted that he’s an ineffective speaker who holds his position mostly because nobody else wants the job — an anti-Sam Rayburn, a survivor who’s liked but not feared. The only compliments he ever seems to earn are backhanded, rueful, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.
Yet at the same time, Boehner has done his country a more important service over the past two years than almost any other politician in Washington.
That service hasn’t been the achievement of a grand bargain with the White House, which he has at times assiduously sought. Nor has it been the sweeping triumph over liberalism that certain right-wing activists expect him to gain. Rather, it’s been a kind of disaster management — a sequence of bomb-defusing operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis.
Three realities have made these constant defusing operations necessary. First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policymakers in unprecedented ways. (It’s easier to be a successful legislator when you’re negotiating over an expanding pie.) Second, there’s the combination of gridlocked government and ideological polarization, which simultaneously requires compromise while reducing the common ground available to would-be deal-makers.
Such obstacles might be enough to frustrate even the legislative giants of the past. Pundits talk blithely about the good old days of bipartisanship, but there’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.
The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.
Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. He’s always found them, by hook or by crook: There was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011 and no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.
The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the eleventh hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the past two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)
You might say that this is no way to run a government. I’d agree. But the nation’s polarization and his party’s dysfunction are beyond a speaker’s ability to undo. As Democrats learned across the 1970s and ’80s, the House is a poor base from which to rebuild a national party. Nobody blames Tip O’Neill or Jim Wright for failing to do what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ultimately achieved. And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.
No, the way out of our predicament is through the ballot box, not the speaker’s office. Either Democrats need to consolidate their advantages and win back the House or Republicans need to find a way to start winning national elections again, at which point the current impasse will be broken and policy will tilt more clearly toward the left or right.
Until then, we’re stuck with the cycle of brinkmanship — another debt-ceiling debate, another shutdown possibility, the spending portion of the fiscal cliff.
It would probably be better to call the whole thing off and accept that the fiscal picture won’t change much in two years. But if we’re going to go through it again, I’m glad the speaker who prevented dysfunction from producing disaster last time is around to try again.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.