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Obama May Yet Bail Boehner Out on the Budget. That Would Be an Historic Mistake.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

On Monday I wrote a piece saying we’re headed for a government shutdown when this year’s funding runs out on September 30. The piece hinged on three assumptions. The first was that, unlike previous confrontations with Republicans over government funding, the White House and Democrats have little interest in avoiding a shutdown because polls overwhelmingly show Republicans would take the blame, and because the economy is strong enough to withstand it. The second assumption was that the conservative wing of the GOP would welcome the chance to shut down the government as a way to highlight its distaste for Obamacare (whose defunding conservatives are demanding as the price for keeping the government open). Finally, I assumed that even John Boehner has an interest in a shutdown. Although Boehner has spent months trying to avoid this scenario, which he knows would damage Republicans, I believed he would come to see it as the only way to persuade his caucus that its lunatic tactics are in fact lunatic. 

At the time, the final assumption proved most controversial. Sure, John Boehner is at his wit’s end trying to save the House GOP from itself. So much so that he’s taken to asking reporters if they have any ideas for bringing his caucus under control. But, c’mon, the skeptics wrote. He can’t possibly be so hard up that he would lead his colleagues into a PR-slaughterhouse simply to prove a point. 

Fast forward a few days and the world looks very different. On Tuesday, Boehner set project slaughterhouse in motion, bowing to conservatives’ insistence that he make defunding Obamacare a condition for keeping the government open. The House plans to vote on this measure—known as a continuing resolution or CR—on Friday, at which point the Senate will promptly kill it. That puts us on track to have a shutdown on October 1 unless Boehner can somehow rally his troops behind a stripped down measure (a “clean” CR) that funds the government at its current levels for another few months. This is the most conservative piece of funding legislation Democrats will agree to. Unfortunately for Boehner, his caucus revolted against such a bill when he floated the idea last week. So a shutdown is where we’re headed. 

Or at least it was where we were headed until yesterday, when the White House tipped its hand. According to Politico, the White House is hoping to persuade (or hoping Nancy Pelosi can persuade) 40-50 Democrats to vote for a clean CR if it comes before the House to ensure that it passes. To put it slightly differently: The White House believes Boehner won’t be able to pass the clean CR with House Republican votes alone, thereby putting him on track for the political disaster of a shutdown. In order to avoid this fate, the White House will urge Democrats to provide the margin of passage. (A White House aide tells me the Politico account is a bit overstated—there’s nothing being urged just yet, and certainly no directives issued to Pelosi. But the aide doesn’t deny that this would be the preferred approach should the situation arise. My understanding is that House Democrats, for their part, are more inclined to let the GOP hang itself, or at least demand a higher level of spending in exchange for their votes.)

A couple of observations while you pick your jaw up off the ground. First, it’s worth appreciating the irony here: If forced to guess how the government would avoid a shutdown, most of us who follow this would probably have said Boehner would blink, since Republicans have so much more to lose. In fact, it’s the White House rather than Boehner that appears to be blinking. I’d previously assumed the White House would make good on its tough talk from earlier this year and let Boehner to shut down the government if that’s what Republicans were determined to do. Despite the tendency of the White House to cave in these situations, it seemed like a relatively safe assumption thanks to all the political incentives that reinforced it. It turned out not to be a very safe assumption at all. 

But set aside the way the two sides are deviating from how we might expect them to behave. The big problem with this latest twist is that it almost certainly guarantees a disaster when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling in mid-to-late October.

To see this, you have to understand the psychology of the average House Tea Partier. These are people who have spent the last two-and-a-half years demanding an apocalyptic showdown with Obama, only to have their leaders defer it again and again. When the debt limit needed to be raised this past March, for example, Boehner persuaded his loonies that they’d be much better off postponing the confrontation until the government funding fight. Now that the moment of truth is here, Boehner is telling his folks to put the fight off yet again.

Not surprisingly, the Tea Partiers aren’t really going for it. They want to pass legislation that will defund Obamacare, and they want to do it by attaching it to the bill that keeps the government open past September 30. They don’t really believe Boehner when he says he’ll give them their shot a few weeks later, when the debt ceiling needs lifting, if they just hold their fire this one last time. Those suspicions are why Boehner is going to be hard-pressed to pass a clean CR with only Republican votes. The Tea Partiers will see it as the latest in a long history of capitulations. 

If Boehner nonetheless manages to pass a clean CR and avoid a shutdown—thereby denying the Tea Partiers the confrontation they crave—he will be 100 percent on the hook for having a confrontation over the debt ceiling. The Tea Partiers simply won’t stand for letting another opportunity pass, especially since Boehner has spent the last few months saying the GOP should make its stand there rather than the government funding fight. But, of course, screwing around with the debt ceiling is much, much more dangerous than screwing around with a shutdown. A shutdown takes a few billion dollars out of the economy each day—not a great idea, particularly in this environment, but hardly calamitous. Failing to raise the debt ceiling will lead to a default on our government debt and trigger a financial crisis that’s potentially worse than the one we’re still recovering from. Our only hope of avoiding this fiasco is to go ahead and have the shutdown, which will allow the public to completely repudiate the GOP before the debt-ceiling comes due. At that point, Boehner will be able to raise the debt ceiling with far less angst, having demonstrated to his colleagues how isolated they are politically. 

Of course, if Boehner were somehow able to avoid a shutdown on his own, it would be a bummer, but what could we do? Democrats plainly don’t have any control over what Boehner does. What’s completely nuts is for Democrats to help Boehner pull this off when he otherwise couldn’t. One is tempted to describe it as helping an opponent off the mat when you have him nearly pinned, except that this would be far, far worse. It would be more like helping an opponent off the mat in such a way as to send him into a homicidal rage, then sticking an assault weapon in his hand and then trying to reason with him. Why on earth would anyone do that? 

Unfortunately, that’s exactly where we’re headed. The White House seems to think that helping Boehner avoid a shutdown will buy it some good will. In reality, avoiding the shutdown that the Tea Partiers have elevated into a test of ideological purity will only further enrage them. They will interpret it as unilateral disarmament by their weak-kneed leadership, not a concession to reality. And the only outlet for their rage will be the debt ceiling. I’m at a loss to come up with a scarier scenario. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber