The dominating news of this week is the efforts–failed, so far–of various factions in Congress to put together a deal that will reopen the government (or, more accurately, end the partial government shutdown) and raise the debt limit. The latest element in the drama is a vote in the House that the Republican leadership had to scuttle for lack of votes.
In the midst of these events, Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid, came forward with these comments about the Speaker of the House:
I’m very disappointed with John Boehner, who would once again try to preserve his role at the expense of the country. I’ve worked hard to rise above partisanship, to find common ground in the Senate, and Mr. President, we’ve done that together for the good of the nation.
While I am no special fan of Speaker Boehner, I think that Reid’s remark is unjustified and, even more, that it stinks of hypocrisy, for the following reasons.
In the first place, Reid implicitly claims to know, without any evidence that he presents, that Boehner is making his moves purely on the basis of selfish political considerations. And of course Reid has no evidence of the kind: Boehner surely did not confide his motives to one of his principal political rivals. For all we know Boehner earnestly believes, along with most Republicans (and many Americans), that Obamacare is bad for the country and is reluctant to part with a chance to do something to hem it in.
But let us concede, for the sake of argument, that Boehner is not fully on board with those House Republicans who insist on decisive action against Obamacare. Let us assume that he is maneuvering to keep them satisfied because they are a necessary constituency for him. According to Reid, Boehner has a moral, patriotic obligation to destroy his own speakership for the sake of the kind of continuing resolution and debt limit increase that Democrats want. Boehner, Reid says, is trying to “preserve his role”–that is, his position as Speaker–“at the expense of the country.” To flesh out what Reid is implying, Boehner is obliged to bring to the House floor a bill that will pass with the support of a handful of Republicans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats, thus betraying the majority of the House Republicans. The predictable result of doing this on such an important issue would be Boehner’s ejection as Speaker and at least temporary chaos among House Republicans. It is understandable that Reid would desire such an outcome, but anybody can see that this is a partisan desire and not a purely patriotic one.
What about the hypocrisy? While freely admitting that I have no more special insight into Harry Reid’s mind than Reid has into Boehner’s, I ask readers in all candor whether Reid would do the thing he demands that Boehner do if the situation were reversed. If it were possible to pass a Senate bill with, say, 46 Republicans and 5 Democrats, a bill very offensive to the majority of Senate Democrats, and a move that would probably end Reid’s tenure as Majority Leader at the hands of his own conference–would he do it? I don’t think so.
Finally, we might ask whether it would really do any substantial good for the country if Boehner fell on his sword. If he’s out, who’s in? Speaker Pelosi, supported by the Democratic minority and a sliver of liberal Republicans? Clearly not. A liberal Republican Speaker, supported by the Democratic minority and a sliver of liberal Republicans? This is just as inconceivable, and even if it could be done, no honest person, once again, would expect Democrats to pursue such a path in the opposite situation if these were the consequences for their own party.
The most likely outcome of Boehner’s implosion would be his replacement by somebody much like him, somebody broadly acceptable to the House Republican conference. Such a Speaker would be subject to all the same pressures that are now making Boehner’s job hard, and it is not unlikely that that new Speaker would find himself in the same situation that Boehner now faces when the new continuing resolution expires and the debt limit has to be increased again.
The basic problem is not John Boehner’s leadership but the sharp polarization of the parties over the question of the Affordable Care Act, a polarization that is not the invention of diabolical politicians but reflects a similar polarization in the country.