During the cold war, conspiracy theorists would sometimes suggest that the American and Soviet militaries were secretly in cahoots. Each needed its civilian overlords to keep the money flowing, and to make that happen, each needed the other to appear menacing. “Hey Vasily, we’ve got a difficult budget vote coming up. Would you mind sending a sub into the Persian Gulf?” “No worries, Rick, and we’re super-pumped about your big war game next spring.” Or something like that.
I’m beginning to suspect that something similar is happening between Barack Obama and John Boehner. Think about who lost in last week’s budget deal. Liberals lost, as the DLC-ified White House agreed to huge cuts in domestic spending. Social conservatives lost, as it became clear, yet again, that while Republicans can roll Democrats on programs for the poor, they get nowhere when it comes to abortion. Nancy Pelosi lost, since as Politico recently pointed out, the former second-most powerful-person-in-Washington proved largely irrelevant to the negotiations. The Tea Party didn’t lose—since it helped set the terms of debate—but it didn’t exactly win either, since for all its famed independence, it proved subservient to party leaders. And Republican presidential candidates lost big, since the budget deal—especially following the tax deal late last year—makes it seem like the folks currently running Washington are actually getting something done.
And who exactly are those folks? They’re Obama and Boehner, who increasingly look like the best thing that ever happened to each other. Compared to past executive-legislative duos, the relationship doesn’t pack a lot of drama. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were both baby boomers, both narcissists, both philanders, both intellectuals. They each craved each other’s approval, and Clinton proved extremely good at messing with Gingrich’s head. Obama and Boehner, by contrast, have nothing in common. Culturally, they’re almost caricatures of their parties. Imagining them having a conversation is like imagining one of the Mad Men being interviewed by Terry Gross.
With this generation of Democratic president and Republican speaker of the House, it’s all business—and business is good. Obama has clearly decided that his reelection hopes rest on reviving his 2008 image as the guy who brings Washington together, almost irrespective of what he’s bringing it together behind. Liberals can fume, but there’s no serious national figure to Obama’s left who can challenge him in a primary. And Obama doesn’t have to convince lefties to turn out for him; he just has to convince them to turn out against the Tea Party, which particularly given the GOP’s bid to strangle public-sector unions, shouldn’t be too hard. Boehner’s making Obama’s strategy work: He’s forcing Obama to concede a lot on substance, but he’s proving able to cut a deal. And given voters’ tendency to reward the appearance of political harmony, that deal-making is making Obama look effective. This week Karl Rove warned that Obama is regaining his reputation as a strong leader and “Republicans should be careful to not let him recover as he gears up for his 2012 re-election campaign.” But Boehner isn’t only allowing Obama to recover; he’s paving the way.
It is more than a little depressing that Boehner is now Obama’s political wingman.
• Mark McKinnon: The Shutdown’s True Extremists• Howard Kurtz: How Obama Won the Budget War• Patricia Murphy: The GOP’s Rivals for the TopSimilarly, Obama is helping Boehner. The Tea Partiers want Boehner to show that he cares more about his relationship with them than his relationship with the White House. That’s made easier by the fact that Obama and Boehner have so little personal chemistry. Boehner even reportedly used the fact that Obama was furious at him to convince his militant freshmen that he had gotten a good deal. Anything that upsets Obama, they reasoned, must be good for America. If Republicans controlled the White House, the Tea Partiers would accept no limits on their budget-cutting, but with Obama there, Boehner can tell his base—correctly—that they’ve succeeded in radically shifting the agenda. And he can tell them this deal is a mere appetizer for the huge cuts to come in 2013, when Republicans occupy the White House. What he doesn’t tell them is that by giving Americans this conservative appetizer, the Obama-Boehner team is satiating them, leaving them with little appetite for a GOP main course.
It is more than a little depressing that Boehner—who embodies the regressive, lobbyist-driven politics that Obama was supposed to banish—is now Obama’s political wingman. But that’s what has become of the Obama revolution. Not long ago, this was an era of liberal dreams. Now liberals must content themselves, once again, with reelecting a Democratic president, even as his interests and theirs continue to diverge.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.