John Boehner is in many ways a very good leader for the House Republicans. He is not only attractive and articulate but also the first member of the House Republican leadership in a generation who is actually a legislator. Remarkably, none of his predecessors—Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, Roy Blunt—ever in their career managed a bill for either the majority party or the minority party on the House floor. They were what you might call “back bench” leaders—good at throwing bombs and making speeches but clueless as to the details of how the institution they nominally controlled actually worked.
Boehner not only boasts legislative experience but is damn good at it, too. Against considerable obstacles, the Ohio Republican worked with the Bush White House, his Senate counterpart Ted Kennedy, and some of the Democrats on the Education and Workforce Committee that he chaired to win passage of the “No Child Left Behind” act.
He also can parrot the party line with passion and apparent conviction for months at a time. “Morning” Joe Scarborough points out that Boehner may not be the hardest-working leader in the history of the Congress, but he is a quick study and can master statistics and details that appear well beyond the grasp of others in high positions in his party.
But Boehner has one serious flaw as a Republican leader in the era dominated by the radical-right Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, and the Tea Party. From time to time he cannot control his inclination to be reasonable. Notably, this past Sunday he could have told Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” that he would stick with the party mantra that taxes should be increased on the 98 percent of the American people who make less than $250,000 a year if the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy are not made permanent by year’s end.
Boehner, however, recognized to the dismay of his party that regardless of what anyone might think about that position in terms of policy it is outrageously bad politics. Boehner told Schieffer that if he had no other choice he would support retaining the tax cuts for the middle class even if the rich were not included. Based on the reaction of his fellow party members you would think he had burned the Holy Bible, shares of Goldman Sachs & Co., and the menu for the Capitol Hill Club on the House steps.
Boehner recognizes that a bruising battle on that issue in the final days before Congress recesses for the fall elections could shift the momentum his party has enjoyed and put the substantial gains it hopes to make at serious risk. What’s more, he recognizes that while every corporate boardroom, every political junkie, and every one of the 2.2 million households that make more than $250,000 a year fully understand the Republican position on this issue, it has survived largely because a very large share of the 116 million households that make less than $250,000 don’t understand it. Educating them on where his party is actually coming from on the question of their taxes could be catastrophic.
What happens next is up to the Democrats. They can join Boehner in recognizing that there is a serious chink in the Republican armor and that it is as much opportunity for them as it is vulnerability to their opposition. They can take their gloves off and fight like hell for the next three weeks for the people that sent them here.
Or they can decide that such a strategy would be too divisive—that it might further alienate dissident factions in their caucus or perhaps offend portions of their contributor base or delay getting home to campaign. All those things may be true, but without a clear understandable message about who Democrats are these days and which side they are on, they won’t need to worry about divisions in their caucus, money to run TV ads, or getting home to campaign. None of those things will provide much solace to a party that does not have a message.
It is mid-September and the Democrats don’t have a lot of choices about what the message will be. They can fight for tax cuts for the middle class and defend the Treasury against the budget-busting, give-away tax breaks for the wealthy that will require more than $700 billion in future government borrowing. Or they can give the Republicans what they want—no debate on taxes and an opportunity to focus on issues that appeal to all of their constituents, not just their contributors.
Some choices in politics are hard, but this is a no-brainer.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.