What the hell is John Boehner thinking? I don’t mean that strictly in a rhetorical sense, though it’s hard not to slap your head when you see the most powerful Republican in the country lurching from one cockamamie strategy to another. I mean it quite literally: What is Boehner’s personal calculation when it comes to navigating the various challenges—potential government shutdown, potential debt default, lunatic Republican caucus—he faces over the next few weeks?
The conventional wisdom is that Boehner cares most about avoiding a government shutdown, since he knows how damaging it would be to the Republican Party, which would take the overwhelming share of the blame. “[M]ake no mistake, the incentives are still heavily for Boehner to cut a deal and avoid a shutdown at all costs,” political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote last week in The Washington Post. Smart commentators on the right have echoed this analysis. “Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are just as convinced as ever that a partial government shutdown would not advance any conservative goal, and just as determined to avoid one,” wrote National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru a few days later.
But while it’s certainly the case that Boehner thinks a shutdown would be terrible for the party, and that he’d prefer to avoid one, it’s not at all clear it’s in his interest to do so. Why? Because there are two things Boehner presumably cares about more than avoiding a shutdown: not being ousted as Speaker, and raising the debt ceiling by mid-to-late October so as to avoid a debt default. The latter would be far more damaging to the economy than a shutdown, and therefore more devastating to the Republican brand. Unfortunately for Boehner, the only plausible way to both keep his job and avoid a debt default is … to shut down the government when the fiscal year ends next week.
Here’s why: Tea Party conservatives in the House, following the lead the distinguished non-filibusterer from Texas, are all keyed up for a confrontation with Obama in which they refuse to fund the government unless they can simultaneously defund (or rather, “defund”) Obmacare. This is why Boehner and Cantor, after initially hoping to keep the two initiatives separate, reluctantly agreed to make defunding Obamacare a condition for funding the government in the bill they passed last Friday. The Democratic Senate and the president obviously aren’t going along with this. So the only way to avoid a shutdown is for Boehner to walk it back, which conservatives will regard as a humiliating retreat.
Suppose Boehner surrenders in this way and avoids a shutdown. The only way he’s likely to keep his job in the face of the inevitable conservative backlash is to promise a for-real-this-time confrontation a few weeks later, in which the House insists on a year-long delay for the individual mandate, the linchpin of Obamcare, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Problem is, Obama has absolutely refused to negotiate over the debt limit in any way. He’s been remarkably consistent on this point, going so far as to call Boehner on Friday night for no other reason than to inform him he still wasn’t negotiating. (It was about as close as you get as president to calling up a high office-holder and telling him to go f*** himself. I admired it greatly.) Unlike in the past, Obama has shown no indication of folding on this point. He probably couldn’t even fold if he wanted to, for the simple reason that, as Jonathan Chait explains, his presidency and our entire system of government would be over if he did. So it’s hard to believe Obama is going to budge here. (At the very least, it’s not a remotely sound basis for your entire strategy.)
Which means one of two things is probably going to happen if we avoid a shutdown: Either John Boehner is going to turn around and appease irate conservatives by insisting on delaying Obamacare in exchange for raising the debt limit, thereby sending the government into default (since Obama isn’t negotiating). Or he’s going to back down and allow the debt ceiling to be raised with a minority of House Republicans and a majority of House Democrats, thereby further infuriating conservatives and almost certainly costing himself his job. (Recall that conservatives got more than halfway to the number of defections they needed to oust Boehner back in January, after he’d merely allowed a vote on a small tax increase when a much bigger one was kicking in automatically.) That is, either Boehner gets it or the global economy gets it, both of which Boehner would like to avoid even more than he’d like to avoid a shutdown.
If Boehner resigns himself to a shutdown, on the other hand, suddenly the future looks manageable. After a few days of punishing political abuse, Boehner will be able to appear before his caucus, shrug his shoulders in his distinctive Boehnerian way, and bleat that he executed the strategy conservatives demanded, but that the country is overwhelmingly opposed to it, as are most Senate Republicans and almost every semi-legitimate right-wing pundit and media outlet. Most of these people have already said that shutting down the government would be a mistake; they would presumably only grow more vocal in as Republicans’ poll numbers collapsed and they hemorrhaged blood all over Washington. Boehner will be able to point to the party’s extreme political isolation as a reason for calling off this round of jihad, in the same way he did during the payroll tax cut debate in late 2011 and the fiscal cliff debate in late 2012. The demoralized conservatives will realize they’re out of moves—at least in this particular battle—allowing Boehner to raise the debt limit a few weeks later with little drama. There will be no debt default, and no conservative coup in the House.
(Granted, conservatives have already suffered some amount of isolation as it’s dawned on mainstream Republicans where the Ted Cruz/defund Obamacare strategy is taking them. But so far the internecine backlash has been primarily a Beltway phenomenon, and so the damage has been largely contained. By contrast, a shutdown would instantly dominate national headlines and stay there until it was resolved.)
Does Boehner appreciate that a shutdown, while far less than ideal, is really his only way out of a terrible situation? It’s tough to say. Psychologically, people often have a hard time inflicting pain on themselves in order to avoid certain death. (Think of how hard it would be to jump from the fourth story of a burning building even if you knew it was your only chance of surviving…) The GOP leadership is set to announce its latest shutdown/debt limit strategy Thursday morning, and the latest rumor is that Boehner will try to defer a shutdown for at least a week, possibly longer.
Still, there are some indications that the logic of the situation is starting to sink in. According to Politico, Boehner is also considering making the delay of the individual mandate a condition for funding the government, which would almost certainly result in a shutdown and start the chain of events I’ve described. If that comes to pass, Boehner would once again prove he’s far savvier than almost anyone in Washington gives him credit for. All the administration would have to do is get out of the way and let him work his magic.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber