A.B. Stoddard: Boehner: A true leader

Greg Nash

It is the end of the “Boehner Rule” — a victory for President Obama, the final chapter in the bitter budget battles between Democrats and Republicans that have eroded confidence in the U.S. economy for years, and a precedent-setting retreat by the majority party in the House that means debt-ceiling deadlines might no longer be forcing mechanisms that rein in the nation’s staggering debt.

All of this is true. Yet bringing a clean debt-ceiling increase up for a vote, without any “compromise” policy attached, was Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) only choice. 

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Sure, there were great ideas about what Republicans could pair it with: a bill to block the “risk corridors” provision of the Affordable Care Act in order to prevent an insurer bailout, the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the restoration of the cost-of-living increases for military veterans that had been struck in the bipartisan budget deal in December, even a sustained growth rate adjustment or Medicare “doc fix.” 

But nothing could satisfy conservatives, unite the conference, create consensus — nothing got 218 votes.

Last week, conservatives outside and inside the House GOP conference were already talking about ousting the Speaker just for circulating principles for immigration reform. Facing an angry backlash, that hot potato is now cooling on the back burner so that nothing will distract from the issue of ObamaCare. Boehner knows Republicans can’t pass immigration reform in 2015, when the divided party will begin what promises to be an epic battle for the presidential nomination, a fight by the establishment and problem-solving Republicans against Tea Party purists. Boehner knows whoever wins will face a daunting demographic liability if Latino and Asian voters feel the same way about the GOP as they do today, not to mention African-Americans and the burgeoning number of single women.

Boehner responded the same way to the debt-ceiling impasse as he did to the immigration explosion, because he knows when his conference won’t budge. Is a clean debt-ceiling increase a complete capitulation? Not if the only other choice is default. 

In December of 2012, as all of the Bush tax cuts were expiring, Boehner suggested his conference back a threshold of $1 million so that anyone making less would not pay new taxes. It failed, because for too many Republicans, it would mean voting for a tax hike. The debt-ceiling vote is the same thing: Voting “no” — in favor of raising everyone’s taxes or for default — feels easier than the pain of choosing the national interest.

Many groups may petition for Boehner’s head, but maybe he is planning to leave anyway. Boehner’s dearest friends have left or are leaving Congress, along with some of his longtime, most loyal staff. But Boehner can leave — or stay — knowing he has been a true leader. 

His greatest, most risky experiment illustrated that the Speaker is willing to look bad for the long-term good of his members. In September, he let the kids light the kitchen on fire with a government shutdown, where in the past he had only let them play with matches. In the process, Boehner won the respect of some of his greatest critics. He taught them there’s only so much you can do when you control the House but not the Senate or the White House, and a GOP conference that is divided does even less. Boehner also convinced many members to reconsider just how much good the outside groups were ultimately doing them or the country.

A tenure marked by governance, humility and respect for the voters Congress serves will allow Boehner, in spite of all of the chaos, to leave with his head held high, whenever that day comes. Even singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.