President Obama and his team fully expected this sort of internecine squabbling to erupt within the GOP, and they predicated their approach to the budget fight on it. For many congressional Democrats, that approach has been a source of frustration: too disengaged, too passive. But the president, like the speaker, is intensely wary of the political consequences of a shutdown; though 1995 provides some comfort, the folks at 1600 would be the first to tell you that John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich. By first remaining above the fray and then offering a reasonable compromise, however, White House officials believe they have gone a long way toward inoculating Obama from blame if things blow up. “Look at them, then look at us,” says an administration official. “Voters know a shit show when they see it.”
But even if there is no shutdown, the Obamans see their approach as paying dividends. By meeting Republicans more than halfway on spending cuts, they curry favor with the deficit-minded independent voters with whom Obama is currently suffering. (A new Quinnipiac poll puts his approval rating at just 39 percent with them.) And by, in effect, partnering with Boehner to put together a bi-partisan deal, they are sowing seeds of dissension within the Republican ranks that may flower into something rather lovely in the larger fiscal clash around the corner.
I’m talking, of course, about the epic struggle over the 2012 budget, which will encompass not just dustups over discretionary spending but entitlements, tax policy, and competing long-range visions for the country’s solvency—and is likely to consume the rest of the year and possibly stretch into the next. The opportunity for Republican leadership here is ample, especially since Obama’s own budget proposal effectively punted on most issues of lasting importance. But the prospects of GOP disarray are just as huge. Even before Paul Ryan, the Republican point man on the budget, has put forward what he promises will be an ambitious, even radical plan, the Republican Study Committee is readying an even more Draconian document that would balance the federal books in ten years.
The RSC’s rogue alternabudget will be one of countless pounding headaches afflicting Boehner in the months ahead and also one of the destabilizing forces that are likely to make his tenure as speaker ever more precarious. In this increasingly polarized political era, the power of a speaker of the House has depended to a large extent on the speaker’s support from the most fervent and ideological elements of his or her caucus. Think of Nancy Pelosi, her stature rooted in the enthusiasm and loyalty of the left. Or think of Gingrich, his stridency buoyed by his relationship to the self-styled revolutionaries of the right. These two faced internal challenges, to be sure, but they emanated not from the activist cores of their parties but from the moderate fringes, so to speak. That base of support lent their speakerships a stability (though in Gingrich’s case only at the start, before his personal foibles got the better of him) that undergirded their effectiveness.
None of this is true of Boehner. His support within his caucus is real enough, but it comes from the older guard; the challenges he faces come from the passionate, hot-eyed cadres that define the new Republican Party. There’s a chance, I’ll admit, that the speaker can turn this situation to his advantage. That his inability to control his unruly tea-party cohort can be used to give him leverage in negotiations over the budget, the debt ceiling, and much else. You could argue, in fact, that this is just what has happened in the current brouhaha. But with those furies raging all around him, his margin for error will be minuscule; the line he’ll have to walk will be fine. And now it appears that if Boehner stumbles, his top lieutenant may not be there to help him up, but instead to trample over him.