Frank Rich on the National Circus: Boehner Surrenders, But the Party of No Will Rise Again

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Photo: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: John Boehner's surrender on debt-limit fight, new revelations about Hillary Clinton from a friend's papers, and what Michael Sam's decision to come out of the closet means for the NFL.

Three years ago, Republican House Speaker John Boehner implemented a strategy of debt-limit brinksmanship, threatening the country with default if the Democrats didn't offer steep spending cuts. Yesterday, Boehner abandoned that strategy, and, amid howls from his party, brought a clean debt-limit bill to the House floor. (It passed, primarily with Democratic votes.) What does Boehner's surrender mean for his party and his speakership? And how big a victory was it for the Democrats and President Obama? 

This was a temporary victory for what remains of the Republican Establishment, and that’s about it. The right’s extortion tactic — give us what we want or we’ll blow up Washington — was proven a political fiasco (as if any proof were needed) by the October shutdown. According to Robert Costa of the Washington Post, Boehner told his caucus that this time, “we’re not going to make ourselves the story.” So his change in tactics was intended to decouple the GOP brand from obstructionism, and to placate Wall Street donors who prefer order to market-roiling chaos. But most of the Republican base doesn’t believe in this temporary truce. Nor do most Republican members of the House — 199 voted against Boehner, only 28 with him. (Many among those 28 are either affiliated with the leadership or are retiring from the House at the end of this term). Even some party leaders, Paul Ryan and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (who gave the GOP’s rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union last month), sided with the rebels.

So while there’s no crisis this time, the fundamental equation remains unchanged. The GOP is still the story. It is a hard-right party that will be happy to once again hold the government hostage to its demands if it gains a Senate majority to go with its House majority in November’s midterms. It’s a party that right now stands essentially for one thing: It is against Obamacare. What is it for? Not immigration reform, even though demographics pose an existential threat to GOP survival. Not a coherent national-security policy beyond “everything that Obama does is wrong.” And it remains unwelcoming to all minorities — and to one majority, which would be women. For all the talk that the GOP is training its troops to stop talking about rape and contraception in a manner demeaning to women, it just can’t help itself. This week, one of the most influential editorial voices of the Wall Street Journal implicitly endorsed Todd Akin’s view of “legitimate rape,” arguing that when a drunken female college student is raped, it is unjust that “the male one is almost always presumed to be at fault.”

In other words, to look at the big picture here, yesterday’s vote on the debt-limit will be remembered, if at all, as a fleeting pause in the Republican right’s Obama-era surge. 

The right-leaning Washington Free Beacon mined the papers of the late Diane Blair, a friend of Hillary Clinton's, and released a report in which Clinton (as First Lady) is quoted dissing Monica Lewinsky, speaking in favor of a single-payer health-care system, and opposing intervention in Bosnia. The Blair papers have been open to the public since 2010. Are you surprised no one published their contents until now? And were you surprised by anything they revealed? 

I wasn’t surprised that it took so long for these papers to surface. Clinton opposition research, on hiatus since her 2008 defeat, is just getting back in business for 2014. And as for the actual contents of the Blair documents: Nothing ever surprises me  — or perhaps anyone else — about the Clintons at this point. If Hillary Clinton is indeed running for president again, these revelations, like those in Robert Gates’s memoir, those in the new biography HRCand even those that Hillary herself offers up to feed the media dogs in her forthcoming memoir are more significant politically for their collective weight than their actual substance, negative or positive. If Clinton fatigue sets in more than two years before the next presidential election, that’s a hindrance to her presumed presidential run, not a plus. It makes her vulnerable to a fresh, insurgent opponent, much as was the case in 2008.

On Sunday, standout University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam came out as gay in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times. Sam is expected to be drafted by an NFL team in May, which would make him the first out gay man to be on an American professional-sports roster. The gay-rights movement has had a string of victories in the courts and at the ballot box over the past several years. Does Sam's revelation still matter?

Of course it does. Pro sports, led by the dominant sport of football, is an arena yet to accommodate itself to homosexuality. Michael Sam is not just a hero (and a powerful exponent of his own character and biography, besides). He has also offered powerful testimony to the brotherhood of his heterosexual University of Missouri teammates, who have known he was gay all season and have set an example for their peers throughout sports in how to take Sam’s coming out in stride, as a nonissue. 

Because of the remarkable, seemingly weekly advances in the struggle for same-sex marriage — exemplified in recent days by Eric Holder’s announcement of more federal benefits for married gay couples — we tend to think the battles over gay civil rights are nearing an end. But they are not, and seeing Michael Sam’s announcement in context shows just how much heroes like him are still needed. It only took a few days for Rush Limbaugh to characterize favorable media attention to Sam as an “assault” on heterosexuality. But in truth, the media that Limbaugh reviles doesn’t always behave much better than he does. As Deadspin first reported,  NBC News went so far as to edit out the firm anti-discrimination remarks contained within the address given by Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee President, who was seated next to Vladimir Putin at the Opening Ceremony in Sochi. NBC has its excuse for this — time constraints — but it did air less consequential passages of Bach’s speech, and it has not acknowledged or apologized for a choice that came off as a diplomatic concession to Putin’s homophobic agenda. Would NBC have been as quick to edit out Bach’s anti-discrimination remarks if Putin’s bigotry were aimed at African-Americans or other minorities? In the history of gay civil rights, this may be remembered as a month when a defensive lineman on a college football team was braver than one of the most powerful news organizations in America’s so-called liberal media.