As the clock ticks down to August 2 — the date by which Congress must raise the national debt limit in order to keep borrowing money to fund the government — don’t be fooled into thinking this is another fight pitting Democrats against Republicans.
This battle is Republican versus Republican. It features John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Speaker of the House on one side, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on the other. And right now Cantor is winning big.
Cantor outflanked the Speaker last week when he quit Vice President Joe Biden’s bipartisan negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. Cantor, who had previously praised the Democrats in the talks for laying out $2 trillion in cuts over 10 years, decided he did not want the adult responsibility of agreeing to anything that far-right critics might view as a tax increase.
So he took a walk on the negotiations without telling Boehner. Incredibly, Cantor first announced he was out of any dealmaking with a call to the Wall Street Journal. Now there is a new and profoundly rude way to announce a political divorce.
The bottom line is that Cantor’s decision to abdicate any pretense of being a political leader set a trap for Boehner. The Speaker is now politically exposed to fire from every direction as he goes into the final phase of negotiations with President Obama and the Democrats.
Wily Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have made it clear all along that they are content to stand aside and make snarky comments about unreasonable, populist “Young Guns” Republicans who won’t support any tax hikes. The message from the disinterested McConnell has been that it is up to Boehner and Cantor to get a deal that will win support from those wild-eyed Republicans in the House. But now Cantor is missing in action — gone.
Without Cantor, Boehner is unlikely to have any backing from the rest of the GOP leadership in the House for a deal that includes a tax hike.
And if Boehner fails to make a deal out of fear of losing his troops to Cantor, then Boehner’s political future is in danger.
With no deal, Boehner will become the bull’s-eye for Wall Street’s fury as the economy implodes with a likely double-dip recession, higher interest rates and lower bond ratings. The voting public is also sure to be upset about unpaid salaries to soldiers and unpaid benefits to Social Security recipients. All the while Cantor waits to take over as Speaker.
We live in an era of public loathing for Washington politicians who fail to get anything done because they are so lost in the politics of polarization. All that anger will be dumped on Speaker Boehner — and Boehner alone — because Cantor has walked off the playing field. A Pew poll released last week found 42 percent of Americans say Republicans will be to blame if the debt limit is not raised. And a very lonely Boehner will be the high-profile public face of congressional Republicans when the public assault begins.
To quote a top aide to Senate Democrats who spoke to the National Journal: “Cantor just threw Boehner under the bus. [By quitting the budget talks Cantor admitted] there will be a need for revenues and Cantor doesn’t want to be the one to make that deal.”
Already Democrats are unloading on Boehner — not Cantor.
A Friday night briefing by Obama administration officials focused on rebutting Boehner’s description of increasing revenue as “job-killing tax hikes.” To the contrary, the president’s economic team says small business and the middle class are not in their sights for any tax increase. They pointedly say they are asking Boehner to match GOP calls for cuts to health and retirement entitlement spending, notably Medicare, by ending tax breaks for the “millionaires and billionaires” who fly around in corporate jets. They also want to eliminate tax subsidies for oil and gas companies and raise tax rates on “carried interest,” earned by fabulously rich hedge fund managers.
To quote Obama on Thursday night after Cantor abandoned the budget talks: “This is not just a budget question, this is a values question.” At the moment it is Boehner’s values the president is questioning because there is no one else to negotiate with.
After withdrawing from the Biden talks, Cantor said it was time for Obama to get into the negotiations. “Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue,” Cantor explained. “Given this impasse, I will not be participating in today’s meeting and I believe it is time for the president to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue.”
But make no mistake — it is not Obama who is hurt by Cantor’s political play. It is his fellow Republican, Speaker Boehner, who is left carrying the GOP flag into battle with no one beside him or behind him.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His next book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which will be released in July.