David Frum

01.07.13

What's the Plan, Speaker Boehner?

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images ()

Wall Street Journal editorialist Steve Moore interviewed Speaker John Boehner. By the end, I found myself more confused than ever about Boehner's goals and tactics.

What stunned House Speaker John Boehner more than anything else during his prolonged closed-door budget negotiations with Barack Obama was this revelation: "At one point several weeks ago," Mr. Boehner says, "the president said to me, 'We don't have a spending problem.' Mr. Boehner looks battle weary from five weeks of grappling with the White House. He's frustrated that the final deal failed to make progress toward his primary goal of "making a down payment on solving the debt crisis and setting a path to get real entitlement reform." At one point he grimly says: "I need this job like I need a hole in the head."

The president's insistence that Washington doesn't have a spending problem, Mr. Boehner says, is predicated on the belief that massive federal deficits stem from what Mr. Obama called "a health-care problem." Mr. Boehner says that after he recovered from his astonishment—"They blame all of the fiscal woes on our health-care system"—he replied: "Clearly we have a health-care problem, which is about to get worse with ObamaCare. But, Mr. President, we have a very serious spending problem." He repeated this message so often, he says, that toward the end of the negotiations, the president became irritated and said: "I'm getting tired of hearing you say that."

Can you figure out what the two men are arguing about?

Boehner says he wants to deal with entitlements. He says he wants to control spending. Yet he objects to the president's emphasis on controlling healthcare costs, even though healthcare is far and away the largest category of entitlement spending and the fastest-growing.

So what are the two men at odds over? There is plainly some substantial difference between them, but what? I think I can guess, but I don't understand why Moore would have allowed his interview opportunity to pass without pressing Boehner to explain himself more precisely and explicitly.

Then this:

The Republicans' stronger card, Mr. Boehner believes, will be the automatic spending sequester trigger that trims all discretionary programs—defense and domestic. It now appears that the president made a severe political miscalculation when he came up with the sequester idea in 2011.

As Mr. Boehner tells the story: Mr. Obama was sure Republicans would call for ending the sequester—the other "cliff"—because it included deep defense cuts. But Republicans never raised the issue. "It wasn't until literally last week that the White House brought up replacing the sequester," Mr. Boehner says. "They said, 'We can't have the sequester.' They were always counting on us to bring this to the table."

Mr. Boehner says Republicans are fairly unified now behind letting the sequester do its work: "I got Lindsey Graham, the biggest noisemaker on the sequester, and Buck McKeon"—the defense hawk who chairs the House Armed Services Committee—"on our side. I got it in my back pocket." The speaker is counting on the president's liberal base putting pressure on him when cherished domestic programs face the sequester's sharp knife. Republican willingness to support the sequester, Mr. Boehner says, is "as much leverage as we're going to get."

The sequester would cut the non-war defense budget to $491 billion in 2013 from $554 billion in 2012, a more than 9% cut. Not a cut below a baseline, but an actual dollar-figure cut.

There may be savings to be found in the defense budget, but this abrupt hacking to reach a pre-determined figure is surely not the way to find them. As recently as October, Mitt Romney slammed President Obama for seeking much smaller cuts in the defense budget. Chuck Hagel's willingness to countenance smaller defense cuts will become a big issue if the president nominates him as Secretary of Defense. Yet here is Speaker Boehner now trumpeting his eagerness for a sequester. I assume this is positioning for the confrontation ahead. But what is Boehner's actual goal in that confrontation? What's he trying to achieve? That question likewise goes unexplained by Boehner and unexplored by Moore.

Puzzling.