Like President Obama, John Boehner used his remarks today to reiterate his same position on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown. Boehner’s central rhetorical thrust, as it has been all along, has been to elide the crucial distinction between hostage-taking and normal political negotiation. The latter involves mutual concessions in order to arrive at policy changes both parties agree would improve the status quo. The former involves one party forcing the other to accept otherwise unacceptable policy changes by threatening to undertake actions that both sides agree are harmful.
Boehner began by repeating his debunked and obvious falsehood that the debt ceiling is always used in the manner he proposes to use it now. Boehner’s line here is that “27 times” in the past it has forced the parties to deal with the deficit. In his earlier press conference, Obama explained why this is false: Those instances actually entailed the two parties negotiating in the traditional fashion and appending a debt-ceiling increase onto the final result. They did not involve a party actually threatening default to wrest un-reciprocated concessions.
Rather than engage with Obama’s debunking, Boehner simply repeated his original, false formulation. Boehner augmented his talking point by mentioning that Democrats in Congress declined to lift the debt ceiling in 2010. But this doesn’t strengthen Boehner’s case — it weakens it even more. The Democratic Congress was not threatening default, nor was it attempting to force Obama to accept policies he opposed. It was simply holding off on a vote in a (wildly misguided) belief that Republicans should have to take ownership of the debt issue rather than blame it on them.
Even more audaciously, Boehner dismissed the notion of lifting the debt ceiling and then negotiating the budget as “unconditional surrender.” How it could be unconditional surrender when he publicly favors lifting the debt ceiling, Boehner did not say. Obama and Boehner disagree on a wide array of budget policies. They agree that the debt ceiling needs to be lifted. Doing the thing both parties agree upon is a bizarre definition of unconditional surrender. If Boehner was an actual debt-ceiling truther, who argued that lifting the debt ceiling somehow worsens the fiscal position of the U.S. government, then lifting the debt ceiling would be surrender. But he isn’t. He agrees with Obama on the merits of the debt ceiling. Unconditional surrender is when one party agrees to do something it opposes but the other party wants — say, delaying Obamacare, as Boehner is proposing.
The most telling thing about Boehner’s remarks is their brevity. The Speaker spoke for about five minutes, responded briefly to one question, and bolted out the door. Obama’s disquisition earlier today may have been long (over an hour) and professorial. But he was able to defend his position against questions, engage counterarguments, and marshal facts to support his position. Boehner couldn’t do any of those things. So he did the only thing a man in his position could do: repeat a handful of false or crazy talking points and quickly flee the premises.