House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner have hit upon a de facto solution to the problems of governing while seeming to keep faith with their ideologically driven constituents.
Here’s the deal: Boehner first stakes out a good position on spending and budget issues by passing a bill he knows will not go anywhere in the Senate or win presidential approval. But the one-house bill gives his Republican members something to vote for and to cite to angry voters back home.
Once his members are safely on record supporting cuts in spending, the speaker then caves in to Obama and the Senate, passing the financial bills the mainstream media says the country needs. But he does so with a majority that consists of almost unanimous Democratic support and forty or fifty of his best supporters in the GOP caucus. The rest of the Republican Congressional Caucus — tea party and others — votes against the bill. It seems that they are defying their Speaker and, back home, their votes pass for courage. But, in reality, they are simply acting out their part of a carefully choreographed pas de deux.
Some of the no votes on Boehner’s bills come from sincere and true believers who genuinely want to demand more spending cuts before they allow the debt limit to be raised or the government to continue to function. Congresspeople like Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve King (R-Iowa), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and a few dozen others are true believers. But the rest of the class of 2010 is riding along on their coattails, voting no and keeping their fingers crossed that they get outvoted so they don’t have to face a firestorm in the media by beating the administration’s bill.
For his part, Speaker Boehner has become the de facto coalition speaker, representing a combination of the entire Democratic Party and a sprinkling of loyal Republicans.
His historic metaphor is former British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who became the first-ever Labour Party Prime Minister in 1924 and again from 1929-31. Like Boehner and the Tea Party, he first attained power at the head of the brand new Labor Party in 1924. While Boehner’s speakership came about as a reaction to Obamacare, MacDonald’s majority stemmed from the pacifist reaction to World War I. After nine months, however, he lost to a resurgent Conservative Party. When he returned to power in 1929, he found it impossible to reconcile the demands of his Labour Party base with the conventional wisdom favoring austerity, so he formed a coalition government in 1931 with only a handful of Labour members but backed by a united Tory Party. That’s roughly Boehner’s situation today. Just as the Conservatives pulled the strings behind the former first-ever Labour Prime Minister, so Obama and Reid are calling the shots for the speaker elected with Tea Party votes.
MacDonald’s Labour Party fell in 1931 because it was split between those who went along with the Conservative Party’s demand to keep the gold standard through spending cuts and his own Labour base which demanded higher spending to counter the Depression. Boehner’s Republican Party is similarly divided between those who are willing to continue to see spending grow and the GOP base, which demands deep cuts. And, like MacDonald, Boehner would rather cling to power and be manipulated by the demands of his opposition than to stand on principle with his own party.
What is the likely future of the House Republican majority? It depends on the outcome of the president’s policies. If they lead to the economic disaster we conservatives have been predicting, the GOP will capture the Senate and gain in the House. Then the stage will be set for Boehner to stand on principle, as he tried to do in 2009 and 2010, or to be pushed aside. But, if the stagnation in which we are now mired turns out to be permanent (as it is in Japan and Europe), then the Republicans are likely to lose their majority.