John Boehner is Actually Doing a Pretty Good Job

Everything I’ve read about Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s performance during the government shutdown — and this perhaps suggests the liberal bubble I live in — is negative.

But I actually think he’s doing a pretty good job, insofar as he faces very serious constraints. Almost every way forward involves losses for him, his party, or his country, so he’s stalling. I think that’s the dominant strategy in the complex, ill-defined game he’s trapped in. Boehner is doing better than you think during the government shutdown crisis.

Here are some of the issues he's facing during the shutdown, and a look at why he's positioning himself well during it all.

1. Allow a “clean C.R. bill” to come to the floor; it gets voted down. This is Boehner’s prediction about the continuing resolution (C.R.) bill. That could only happen if Republicans vote it down near-unanimously, which is tantamount to a vote of no confidence for the speaker who brought it forward, especially on an issue this high-profile. Boehner will be perceived as having caved to Obama — rightly so — and he will lose the speakership.

2. Let’s say the “clean C.R. bill” does pass. This will be perceived as a major betrayal to the Tea Party, Republican voters, and the 2010 and 2012 congressional classes, who, as Robert Costa of the National Review points out, have very little loyalty to the speaker. He would probably lose his speakership. Boehner knows that a well-financed, interconnected, anti-ACA coalition could put some serious money into running a primary challenge against him in 2014, which he might lose.

3. Cave on the shutdown, attach ACA riders to the debt-ceiling. This option looks bad on two fronts. One, the Democrats would perceive this as weakness, assume that the country would blame Republicans for not raising the debt-ceiling, and so would feel confident not negotiating. (It’s chicken.) Two, Boehner doesn’t seem to be one of the Republicans who think that default wouldn’t be so bad after all. so he probably wants to avoid this scenario on its own grounds. Give the guy some credit, he really does care about national welfare to some extent.

4. Stall. Hope pressure from business groups makes the Tea Party faction back down. Hope you can spin the debate so that Senate Democrats — who also are suffering in approval ratings — look like the bad guys. Pray. Wait for new, unforeseen developments. As far as I can tell, this is the speaker’s strategy. If things do resolve quickly, he’s unlikely to face any lasting political damage; fate really might just deliver this one to him. Every other path seems awful. Given his extremely serious constraints, this seems like the dominant strategy. 

To me the obvious solution seems to be to push ahead with the clean C.R. bill, then retire, because being speaker seems like it sucks. But then I never would have wanted the job in the first place. And yet, someone has to do it. And all told, I’d prefer that he or she be a person who, like Deng Xioping, knows that “as in bridge … [you must] not dwell on what might have been or who was at fault for past errors,” and always be ready to play the hand you’re dealt.