John Boehner Traps Himself on the Sequester

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Nothing but blue skies.Photo: Brendan Hoffman/2012 Getty Images

John Boehner uses a Wall Street Journal op-ed today to signal his party’s strategy, such as it is, on the budget sequester. The main message is to blame President Obama for the budget sequester. Now, that part of the message is obviously untrue — the sequester was a way to escape an economic crisis ginned up by House Republicans, and Boehner himself touted it in 2011.

But the untruth of Boehner’s claim that Obama is the Father of the Sequester isn’t the real problem here — that fact will get buried in he-said, she-said reporting. The bigger problem with Boehner’s strategy is what comes next.

Boehner’s end goal, as explained in the op-ed, is to “reform America's safety net and retirement-security programs.” He has no proposal to do so, however. And for good reason. Cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is really, really unpopular. Boehner wants Obama to offer his own proposals to cut these programs to give Republicans political cover. But Obama won’t do that unless Republicans offer to increase tax revenue. And that is the thing they absolutely, positively refuse to concede on. (Cutting a deal on spending and revenue could cost Boehner his post.)

So what is Boehner’s play here? One possibility might be to just try to cancel out the sequester — perhaps in some sneaky way by replacing it with some future commission that would pretend to cut the deficit but really wouldn’t. The trouble here is that Boehner promised his own ultra wing he would carry it out earlier this year. The other possibility would be to just live with the sequester more or less permanently, or until Republicans can gain full control of government. The trouble here is that Boehner promised his defense hawk members the sequester would never go into effect. Conservative reporter Byron York notes that Boehner’s message — that the sequester is a disaster – totally undermines his chances of just sticking with the sequester.

There seems to be no outcome for him that would let him attain even the minimal goal of keeping his job, let alone advancing some policy outcome he prefers.

It is actually a fascinating thing about Boehner. He keeps wedging himself into impossible situations and somehow escaping. One interpretation (put forward by Ross Douthat) is that he is a highly clever pol who manages to defuse crises. It could be. But it also seems that Boehner’s technique for escaping each crisis involves putting off irreconcilable promises. He got through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the debt ceiling by promising his members a grand, successful clash the next time.

Boehner may be in a better spot now to fight Obama, but he’s not in a good spot. He's given himself no way out save the total victory of forcing Obama to swallow entitlement cuts without revenue, a goal he almost certainly can’t attain. He’s the unpopular leader of an unpopular party advocating unpopular ideas against a reasonably well-regarded president, so a public fight will decrease rather than increase his leverage. Maybe Boehner has some brilliant, secret plan to escape this trap, but assumptions like that have a pretty bad track record.