Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Boehner and the Republican Caucus

State of the Union 2011

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on right now in the wake of the government shutdown and the crisis of the debt ceiling.  The newly written Senate deal roughly ends in 3 months and there is fear that we will soon be faced, once again, with the kind of experience we just witnessed.  Let me give you my interpretation of events that provides the basis for my reason why I don’t believe Congress will soon repeat this episode.

We all know Speaker Boehner has been dealing with a rowdy caucus that has, on a number of occasions, undermined his preferred strategy to produce legislation.  He is a very experienced politician and he knows a lot can happen in a very short period of time to change the political equation.  Speaker Boehner knew his Tea Party wing of the Republican Party was spoiling for a fight – about the debt, about deficit spending, about Obamacare.  He also fully appreciated the upcoming 2014 elections were still just over a year away.  I suspect Boehner took a calculated risk and determined on a course of action that would cause him great personal pain but could also result in greater discipline and cohesion among his House Republicans – improving their chances of maintaining their current majority.  This certainly seems a real stretch given Republican approval ratings at the moment.  Disastrous Republican results at the polls may still come about if they don’t choose a change in course.  Republican members of the House need to repair their image by presenting a cohesive, disciplined message that highlights achievable solutions while muting tirades of righteous indignation.   How do they accomplish this?

First, Speaker Boehner has vastly improved his standing with his own caucus.  Despite suffering a painful political loss the members of Boehner’s caucus rewarded him Wednesday afternoon with a heartfelt standing ovation.  He has stood with them to the last moment and it has reduced their suspicions of him as to his Conservative credentials.  They respect and admire him for his loyalty to them and for his allowing them to take a course that, he knew all along, would result in this humiliating outcome.  The Republican House Class of 2010 is, for the most part, made up of political novices.  They've shown passion but little political sense.  This was a lesson Boehner felt they needed to learn and, he gambled, they could get away with receiving a real shellacking because there’s plenty of time for new battles to wage and opportunities to win back voter sympathy.  But this would require a Republican caucus stung by defeat and as a result, its members would give Boehner a new-found respect for his judgment.  They would more likely be willing to take his advice in future confrontations with Democrats and the White House.

Second – government funding ends in January and the debt-ceiling will need to be raised in February.  Washington will not likely repeat the experience suffered in October, 2013.  2014 is an election year.  Voters will punish repeat offenders at the polls; so will big money Republican contributors.  This is not to say some Republican Congressmen won’t leave the Reservation and take to the war path.  They can be tolerated.  But they won’t be allowed the keys to the car and steer the Party’s course.  The Republican Caucus will remain just as hard-headed conservative in their instincts as they are now but they hopefully will bring greater reason and discipline to their argument.  They will more carefully choose their battles.  They will more likely consider the advice of legislators experienced in dealing with the Senate, the White House, the media and outside political groups.  If so they could be more persuasive but far less entertaining.

From past experience we can all feel cynical about the upcoming negotiations between House and Senate conferees.  What can they possibly accomplish that any number of past Blue Ribbon committees could not?  Once again, it is likely to end in more gridlock unless both parties find advantage in compromise – or at least appear to give more concern for the nation’s welfare than in energizing their political base.  Previous panels, having distinguished members, have tackled this country’s most difficult issues and their subsequent recommendations have been largely ignored by Washington’s lawmakers.  What's so different now?  Maybe it’s the mood of Washington and the nation.  Following the degrading dust-up we've all just endured may have made us receptive to a reasoned, more cooperative approach to settling our issues.  We've been battling among ourselves as though we view our fellow countrymen as this nation’s enemies.  At some point the anger has to subside if we are ever to accomplish anything constructive.

I see that Paul Ryan will be among the House Republican conferees and Patty Murray will be among those representing Senate Democrats.  These are two, highly regarded, respected legislators.  They are among the best of a new generation of this country’s political leaders.  They don’t grandstand.  They are thoughtful.  They have firm convictions but they are also willing to listen.  They both believe we are a vibrant, dynamic nation with a great future ahead of us.  I like their optimism.  I am hopeful.

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