Speaker Hamlet

To Be or Not To Be…A Loser: Boehner’s Hamlet Moment

Boehner can keep the insanity going, or step up and bring a budget resolution to the floor, saving the country from economic collapse. It’s not rocket science, writes Joe McLean.

10.04.13 9:45 AM ET

As Congress flounders and the clock ticks down to universal financial apocalypse, one small fact is being almost completely overlooked: the votes are already there to end the madness, and there are at least a couple of ways to get there before the government shutdown metastasizes into a default meltdown.

Democrats will vote for a clean continuing resolution (CR) and an increase in the debt limit. Those Republican House members not infected with the Tea Party madness will, too. There are more than enough bipartisan votes to break the deadlock, wrest control away from the GOP’s lunatic faction, and restore common sense to American politics, at least for a week or two.

Barrels of ink have already been spilled explaining why Tea Partiers have no incentive to compromise. Gerrymandered districts, primary challenges from the right funded by hugely rich right-wing dark-money cabals, and potential abuse from Fox News. But mostly, they are convinced Democrats are bluffing. They’re certain they can still win by going all-in with the threat of economic destruction.

Democrats see no reason to compromise. They believe they are right on the issues, and more importantly, think they’ve been dealt a winning political hand. They firmly believe the other side holds a busted flush and has to fold or lose the whole pot. Further, many Democrats see this as a matter of principle, and refuse to knuckle under to hijackers.

President Obama has been characteristically eloquent in his reasoning. He’s not going to destroy his legacy, and he sees real constitutional problems with caving in to a radical minority. Furthermore, even if he was willing, Harry Reid and Senate Democrats are not. So there’s no movement and nobody will budge.

But the real secret is: they don’t have to.

The wild card is John Boehner. The Speaker is the only actor in this Shakespearean tragedy who can force action. But so far he seems more like Hamlet than Henry V. While the ghost of default stalks the battlements, he dithers and spouts soliloquies. But as the pressure builds from business, Wall Street and the voters, his calculus may change—or more likely, events will overtake him.

The “Wingtip” wing of the Republican caucus is ready to revolt and force action.  Already the New York delegation is starting to coalesce around Peter King, to urge action before the GOP radicals create a wholly fabricated, but unthinkably destructive government default.

What will Boehner do? As many observers see it, he has at least four options. First, he could keep hiding behind the ridiculous “Hastert Rule” which requires a “majority of the majority.” In so doing, he will likely preside over the worst self-inflicted economic disaster in American history. People seem to have forgotten that Denny Hastert fled Congress under an ethical cloud, in the middle of the 2007 session after the GOP had lost the House, under his leadership.

Second, he could follow the great tradition of past Speakers and look across the aisle for the votes to avert disaster. Many of the historic legislative achievements of the last hundred years were passed with minority support. Most of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s could not have been enacted without significant Republican support—as hard as it is to imagine that today. Of course, this risks a rebellion in the far right of his caucus, which would likely cost him the speakership.

Third, like Sisyphus, he could roll the boulder of a “grand bargain” back up Capitol Hill. Paul Ryan has already publicly hinted he likes this big-deal scenario, but it simply won’t wash.  In the age where compromise is a dirty word, grand bargains have too many sticky wickets—provisions any demagogue can use as an excuse to say no. This option creates bad optics as well, because it looks like the old pork-barrel log rolling and legislative sleight-of-hand.

Fourth, he can quietly allow Wingtip Republicans and Democrats to join together and pass a discharge petition bringing a clean CR to the floor where it will easily pass. This would set a strong precedent for successfully navigating the critical debt ceiling vote which will be upon us in a couple of weeks. He can cry alligator tears, condemn the turncoats, appease the Tea Partiers base and remain speaker. Maybe.

Even if he sacrifices the Speaker’s job, history calls him to “Take up arms against a sea of troubles. And by opposing, end them!”

To be, or not to be? John Boehner holds the key.