One week ago, John Boehner was dead meat. Facing a rebellion among his freshman members and with a government shutdown looming, Washington was preparing a professional obituary for the speaker of the House.
If he agreed to any compromise on the plan to fund the government for the remainder of the federal fiscal year, Boehner would lose the confidence of his caucus and be a lame duck. If he dug in and joined the fiscal hard-liners in shutting down the government, Boehner would lose his ability to negotiate with Democrats in future fights. His options were to either lose face or to lose his most important bargaining tool. Checkmate.
Yet today, Boehner’s clout in his caucus and as a negotiator have been enhanced.
He is the primary author of a compromise to keep the government operating for the rest of the year with the largest spending reduction in history – 63 percent of the original GOP request of $61 billion. Republicans also got a potpourri of sweeteners, like up-or-down votes on politically painful subjects like President Obama’s health care law and federal subsidies for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. Not too shabby for a guy who held only one of three seats at the negotiating table.
How did he do it?
Boehner’s greatest asset in the process was the low expectations of the skeptics and Democrats.
The press has been waiting for the Tea Party revolt since before the November elections. Reporters have been flogging this story so long that tend to see its shadow over everything that happens in Republican politics. If all you have is a hammer…
There is also Boehner himself, whose leadership style is very un-Washington. The New York Post commemorated his taking the gavel in January with the headline “Weeper of the House” with a picture of Boehner wiping away yet more tears. Lachrymosity is not generally an identifier of a Washington powerhouse.
But aside from his tears, Boehner is unusual for his willingness to share credit and power. While previous speakers have tended toward being either commanders or captives of their caucuses, Boehner has been neither.
Recall how Obama framed the debate when Boehner looked jammed up on the spending plan – the $33 billion in cuts he was offering was about the same amount that Boehner’s leadership team had initially recommended. The president thought he was picking at a scab here because those budget cuts were roundly rejected by the rank and file of Boehner’s caucus.
But the speaker didn’t try to jam through that plan or stick up for the low-balling leadership, he told his caucus to work out whatever plan they wanted and that he would sell it. It looked like weakness to Democrats, but actually strengthened Boehner’s hand. He had given the fiery freshman a chance to blow off steam and enhance their sense of ownership of the legislation.
It also showed Democrats that Boehner was sincere when he said that he wouldn’t sell out his caucus.
After 70 years of getting pummeled by Democrats over entitlement programs, Republicans had learned to sit schtum on the subject. President George W. Bush’s 2005 Social Security misadventure was proof to many Republican pragmatists that the issue was over.
But at the ugliest moment in the fight over the shutdown showdown this week, Boehner raised the curtain on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget. The Ryan plan which calls for the dismantling of the pillars of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid. Gulp.
Washington wisdom would say that the last thing Boehner should have wanted was to start a conversation about privatizing Medicare. Democrats certainly seemed to think so when the called the Ryan plan “a death trap” for seniors and promised to punish Republicans with scary campaign ads next year.
But Boehner knew that the moment is different today than in the previous 70 years. First, the debt crisis is profound and has begun to really frighten Americans. Second, Obama has been unable or unwilling to address those concerns.
Broadening the budget discussion to include entitlement reform was a way for Boehner to demonstrate to the fiscal conservatives in his caucus that he was serious about handling the debt, which enhanced their trust in him for the final leg of negotiations on the current spending plan.
But it also blunted Obama’s public complaint that Republicans were petty for quibbling over the pittance of a few tens of billions in the face of a multi-trillion-dollar problem. While Obama’s 2012 budget ignored the subject of the long-term debt, Ryan’s plan dove in. Even those who detest Ryan’s ideas still conceded that House Republicans were more credible on the subject.
One of the reasons Obama did not get a bigger bounce out of his December deal to maintain the current tax rates for another two years is that he caved in too soon.
Eager to end the discussion about a looming tax increase for all Americans at the end of the year, Obama unhappily cut a deal with Republicans, who he compared to “hostage takers,” and then lashed out at liberals who were critical of the deal as “sanctimonious.” It was an ugly way to handle what should have been a happy occasion.
One of the problems was that Obama cut the deal two weeks before the deadline. The consequences of waiting until the 11th hour to do the tax deal would have been worse than those of a temporary government shutdown. Too much brinksmanship might have terrified Americans into closing up their wallets in the midst of the Christmas shopping season and spooked investors. A deadline deal could have weakened the already anemic economy.
All that said, Obama still went too soon. The liberals who castigated Obama for flip-flopping on one of his central campaign promises wanted him to stay in the fight longer and get more in exchange for his acquiescence. At a moment they wanted to follow their leader into battle, Obama signed a peace treaty.
It may have been a very logical thing to do, but how arguments are resolved are often just as important as the resolution itself. Democrats felt betrayed and Republicans felt empowered, which set the stage for the president’s defeat on Friday.
Boehner, on the other hand, rode the spending debate for as long as he could. By waiting until the last dog was hung, the speaker demonstrated to even skeptical members of his caucus that he was all in and increased the pressure on his counter negotiators.
The turning point in the whole affair was Tuesday when Boehner managed to get support for a one-week continuing resolution to fund the government and keep the troops paid no matter what happened. Tea Party House members had vowed to refuse any such plan, but because of the goodwill he bought by allowing members to set their own level on the cuts and by giving Ryan’s budget his blessing, Boehner got the final tool he needed to beat Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
With military paychecks hanging in the balance, Boehner was able to hold fast in negotiations because his team had passed their own troop funding bill. If Obama and Reid refused it would be they who left military families in the lurch.
Plus, by waiting so long, Boehner limited the amount of time for dissident and publicity hungry members of his caucus to second guess the plan. Every hour before midnight that deal was done would have been an hour for the naysayers to more fully express their unhappiness and draw the attention of reporters looking for the Tea Party rebellion they have been promising for months.
It will get harder from here for Boehner. The stakes will be higher for the president’s request to increase the federal borrowing limit from $14.3 trillion and for the 2012 budget. Plus, Boehner’s success in this opening fiscal skirmish will raise expectations for future fights.
But, Boehner will also go forward with his caucus behind him and Obama trying to play catch up. Not bad for the Weeper of the House.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.