Gaming Out Boehner’s Departure

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September 28, 2015 2:02 p.m.
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With a weekend for the dust to settle, we now have a clearer idea of what led to the dramatic and unexpected departure of House Speaker John Boehner. He wasn’t pushed exactly. Not exactly. Perhaps best to say that the pressure was getting him closer and closer to the precipice and rather than be pushed he decided to jump on his own terms. Pope Francis’s visit to Capitol Hill appears to have played a genuine role in determining precise timing, though not the decision itself. So what does it mean for the House, the GOP caucus and more globally the progress of national politics over the next year?

Three points are worth noting.

One is that Boehner’s resignation effectively ended talk of a government shutdown. In part this is because the fire-breathers in the House have no cudgel over him now. He’ll avoid a shutdown with Democratic votes if he needs to. Threatening to depose him if he does doesn’t really cut much now. But on a broader level – and the second point – House right wingers seem basically okay with this or resigned to it. Because dethroning Boehner is a far bigger scalp or accomplishment than yet another shutdown. Finding out precisely what went into Boehner’s decision to jump now is largely beside the point. The House hardliners wanted him gone and he’s gone. Their power has gone up dramatically.

And why was it so important for Boehner to go (and McConnell, too, as they’re now demanding)? The answer is as clear as it is disconnected from reality. Because in their minds it was Boehner who was preventing them from getting a clean shot at President Obama. This take is even echoed in DC echo chamber publications like The Hill which says that even though Boehner’s departure avoids a shutdown, “it will almost certainly complicate life for President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky).”

This is a basic misunderstanding of the dynamics of the situation, actually a fundamental one – based again on the assumption that the only thing standing in the way of the House “Freedom Caucus” and right wing glory is that they haven’t shut the government down enough, or haven’t voted to repeal Obamacare enough. Was John Boehner really running interference for President Obama, shielding him from the ferocious fury of the right wing of the House caucus or was he frequently bending over backwards to find ways to avoid House nutballs from inflicting even more damage on the party’s national standing?

The latest brouhaha was about whether or not to shut the government down over defunding Planned Parenthood. Note today’s Quinnipiac Poll which shows that Americans oppose shutting down the government over defunding Planned Parenthood by a 69% to 23% margin. Even Republicans oppose it by a 56% to 36% margin. The opposition to this is broad based and overwhelming. It has all the kinetics and logic of driving 100 miles an hour into a reinforced cement wall.

The House is the House because a mixture of demographic trends and effective gerrymandering make it almost impossible for the Republicans to lose it until after 2020. So House flamethrowers can do almost anything they want without consequences any time soon. But the same doesn’t apply to the Senate and certainly not the presidency – where the concentration of Democratic votes in major cities has little effect.

So in terms of headaches and high-wire acts and legislative hostage taking, Boehner’s departure may create some more work for the Obama White House. But if you expand your field of vision out beyond the Washington Beltway, the picture looks rather different. And here’s where we get to point three. If the right wing of the House GOP caucus really gets to run the show in the House and begins doing things that overwhelming majorities of the public are against, that’s actually not a good thing for the GOP. That’s especially so during a presidential race since presidential candidates will inevitably get drawn into bidding wars over how much they support the latest quixotic primal scream from the House Republicans, which will in term give them extra baggage to carry into the general election.

Remember, as with the Cruz/Obamacare shutdown of a couple years ago, the firebreathers believe that it’s just that they’ve never shut the government down long enough. If Boehner and McConnell and the rest of the ‘establishment’ weren’t constantly unilaterally surrendering to Obama right when they had the President where they wanted him, they would have finally broken the guy. They just need these appeasers out of the way to get a clean shot. It’s a handy logic since it’s inherently disprovable. Whenever you finally decide to give up since you’re obviously losing, someone can always say that holding out just a bit longer would have brought victory.

We can leave that discussion for an Ab-Psych seminar. The relevant point is that the House firebreathers just got stronger. But contrary to making life more difficult for the White House it actually makes it easy, if perhaps more time consuming. A two term president in his final year in office is not looking to pass new legislation. He or she is also largely indifferent to their own personal standing. Their focus is legacy and the preservation of existing legislative accomplishments. In other words, the focus is on the 2016 election. By that measure, while Boehner’s departure may not be good for the country, it is quite good for Democrats. Because it leaves the folks focused on maximizing the self-inflicted injuries to the GOP in charge of the show.

As President Obama once said, please proceed.

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