Defense Hawks Swoop

John Boehner should probably stop doing interviews.

His reported talk with the Wall Street Journal‘s Stephen Moore that was published Monday under the provocative title “The Education of John Boehner” (an illusion, I am confident, to William Greider’s famous “The Education of David Stockman” piece in late 1981 that nearly got Stockman fired as Reagan’s budget director) is continuing to cause him problems. Intended, presumably, to convey a sadder-but-wiser-and-tougher sense of his negotiating posture on fiscal issues after the “fiscal cliff” deal, the story got lots of attention for Boehner’s assertion that “the tax issue is resolved,” and some for his depiction of the stark differences between himself and the president on every basic fiscal and economic issue.

But the part of the story that’s biting him in the butt right now involves the spending sequestration that was recently delayed for two months, and that had been widely considered a leverage point for the White House with Republicans, given their frantic desire to spare the Pentagon any cuts. The Hill‘s Russell Berman and Jeremy Herb explain:

In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Boehner said that during the late stages of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, it was the White House — and not Republican leaders — that demanded a delay in the $109 billion in scheduled 2013 cuts evenly split between defense and domestic discretionary programs. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Vice President Biden ultimately agreed to push the sequester back by two months, partially offsetting it with other spending cuts and leaving $85 billion in remaining 2013 cuts in place.

The Speaker suggested the sequester was a stronger leverage point for Republicans than the upcoming deadline to raise the debt ceiling, for which he is insisting on spending cuts and reforms that exceed the amount in new borrowing authority for the Treasury. Therefore, the willingness of Republicans to allow the sequester to take effect is “as much leverage as we’re going to get,” Boehner told the Journal.

Negotiating 101 tells you that you don’t make that kind of assertion unless you’ve got your ducks in a row and know you won’t be undercut by the people you claim to be speaking for. It seems Boehner did not do any of those things:

House Republican defense hawks are pushing back strongly against Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) claim that he has GOP support to allow steep automatic budget cuts to take effect if President Obama does not agree to replace them with other reductions….

Not so fast, two defense-minded House Republicans told The Hill.

“I don’t support that,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee whose district includes one of the nation’s largest military installations. “You get into dangerous territory when you talk about using national security as a bargaining chip with the president…”

One defense-minded Republican lawmaker said Boehner’s position would amount to a broken promise to his conference.

“In order to get the Republican Conference to pass the debt-limit increase last time, he promised them sequestration would not go in place,” the Republican House member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “To be using sequestration and these defense cuts in the next debt-limit talks certainly is pretty bad déjà vu for the Republican Conference.”

So all Boehner really accomplished in his boast to Stephen Moore was supplying further evidence that he had it backwards: Obama has the leverage on the defense sequester, and Boehner is just blustering.

You know, there’s a natural tendency to think that people who have risen to the top of any profession are reasonably bright, and are advised by dazzlingly bright folk who truly earn their bloated salaries as strategic wizards. Time and again, that turns out not to be so true.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.