Saturday, July 23, 2011

The incredible oscillating John Boehner

The neverending debt debacle plods forever onwards. Negotiations appear to be locked in some sort of perpetual loop, like a skipping record. Obama asks for three trillion in deficit reduction, Democrats get angry, Republicans say no, negotiations blow up, and the next day Obama asks for another three trillion in deficit reduction. For the most part everyone's been sticking their ground for the last couple weeks, with one exception: John Boehner.

Boehner grows more schizophrenic by the day. Yesterday, he walked out of talks with Obama, once again blowing up a deal. Today, Boehner is back at the table, making noise about a deal that includes three to four trillion in deficit reduction. Yesterday, everyone agreed that a short-term deal was unacceptable. Today, Boehner appears ready to demand a short-term deal that pairs major cuts with a debt ceiling extension. Boehner talks to Obama and decides that we need to raise the ceiling lest we trigger economic meltdown. Then he talks to his caucus and decides that he'll accept nothing short of the wholly unacceptable Cut, Cap, Balance plan.

It's sort of tragicomic. On one hand, it's not really Boehner's fault -- he's stuck wearing two masks at once. He's the institutional face of the lunatic wing of the Republican Party, and if he doesn't protect their interests, he's liable to eventually lose his position as Speaker. He's also one of the highest-profile politicians in the United States, and is frankly quite a bit cannier than the sort-of-dim Eric Cantor and freshman Republicans. He's no doubt acutely aware of the importance of successfully reaching a negotiated outcome.

But on the other hand, Boehner really has a choice here. If he knows that his caucus is putting the country at risk, Boehner has a responsibility to rise above his caucus. Even if that means working with Democrats. At the very least, Boehner has a responsibility to be forthright about what he and his caucus are willing to accept. By constantly shifting his positions, he's burned weeks or months of valuable time, and brought the United States to the brink of disaster. If we'd known months ago that no negotiated agreement was possible, the president and congressional Democrats would have no doubt gone to greater lengths making certain that the best alternative to a negotiated agreement wasn't default -- even if that just involved going on Sunday shows and talking up the Fourteenth Amendment. But (and admittedly, some of this is on Obama for trusting the Republicans to act responsibly) now all our hopes are pinned on the fading prospect of a compromise.

Yeah, it would be funny if it wasn't frightening.

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