Politics

03.04.13

Hostage to His Caucus, John Boehner Can’t Keep His Message Straight

John Avlon breaks down the essential illogic at the intersection of Republican policy and messaging.

It’s official. Washington has no idea how to get out of the mess it created with the sequester. That’s the message Speaker John Boehner sent with his Meet the Press interview that aired Sunday.

“I don't think anyone quite understands how it gets resolved,” he said with trace of hangdog sadness.

Host David Gregory pressed, asking, “In the end, you don't really see a pathway here that's open as you sit here?”

“If I did, the meeting at the White House this morning might have gone better,” Boehner replied, ruminating on Friday’s hourlong White House powwow while the rest of Congress had skipped town.

Boehner doesn’t even seem grasp the economic impact of the cuts: “I don’t know whether it’s going to hurt the economy or not,” he told Gregory. “I don’t think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work.”

Forgive me for feeling like everyone’s asleep at the wheel in Washington while we’re careening toward a cliff. Again.

Here’s what makes the sense of impotence even worse: John Boehner is a reasonable man, a dealmaker trapped in a time of trench warfare, where positional bargaining is carried to its gridlocked extreme. He’s so tied up by the 50 or so radicals in his conference that it requires ditching the Hastert rule to pass anything. He also tied up by the essential illogic at the intersection of Republican policy and messaging.

If more tax revenue is collected from a lower tax rate, courtesy of closed loopholes, it is now defined as a tax hike by the conservatariat. This is topsy-turvy world, Grover’s paradise.

On the one hand, Boehner’s conference is united by the sense that deficit and debt is generational theft. On the other hand, he can’t be seen a giving any ground on revenues as part of a plan to deal with paying down the deficit and debt.

So he says we need to cut spending—while trying to distance himself from the mammoth spending cuts that are kicking in.

Boehner says, “The issue here is spending. Spending is out of control.”

And then, in the next sentence: “There are smarter ways to cut spending than this silly sequester that the president demanded.”

This is a tightrope walk that would make the Flying Wallendas dizzy.

Video screenshot

How to sound smart when talking about the sequester.

A standard, if fact-free, Republican talking point, repeated ad nauseam by Eric Cantor, is that President Obama has no plan for a grand bargain but just wants to raise taxes. But the White House has released specific proposals for entitlement reform and spending cuts. So now the response is to say that the president got his tax increases in the last-minute fiscal-cliff deal, so what remains of a grand bargain should be just cutting spending.

So Boehner also has to reconcile that talking point with another favorite stat: “we lowered taxes for 99.1 percent of the American people.” That’s true, achieved by working with the president to see that the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts didn’t expire as scheduled.

Likewise, Boehner calls for tax reform and the closing of loopholes to create a simpler tax system that will promote the all-important X factor of economic growth: “We can do this by closing loopholes, bringing the rates down for all Americans, making the tax code fairer,” he says.

But then in the next breath Boehner dismisses the president’s proposals to close specific tax loopholes by calling them both insufficient and a functional tax increase. So if more tax revenue is collected from a lower tax rate, courtesy of closed loopholes, it is now defined as a tax hike by the conservatariat. This is topsy-turvy world, Grover’s paradise.

You can spin language but not reality. At the end of the day, math isn’t partisan. And the basic fact of divided government is that both parties will need to give a little bit and risk alienating their bases to achieve a grand bargain.

If you listed closely to Boehner’s interview, there was even a glimmer of hope buried beneath the frustration and partisan posturing. He really wants—no, he needs—the Senate to get off their ass and pass a plan. He’s not standing on ceremony by calling for a return to regular order, he’s practically begging for a chance to find a middle ground behind closed doors because it’s the only way he won’t get cannibalized by the radicals in his conference.

So here we are. Deep spending cuts that no one wants have started to kick in. The speaker of the House claims to be against them but powerless to stop them. He’s called for a plan consisting of solely cuts—just not these cuts. And no one can see their way toward a grand bargain, because that will require compromise on core issues—a prerequisite for passage with divided government.

The president has put both spending cuts and entitlement reform on the table alongside his call for more revenue. But even responsible Republicans are suffering from Stockholm syndrome—the belief that House radicals are their friends, when they are really the primary force blocking a grand bargain to deal with the deficit and debt from getting it done.