‘A veteran deal-maker’

‘A VETERAN DEAL-MAKER’…. A long-time regular, reader G.S., emailed the other day with a question about the prospects of a government shutdown next week. (I’m reprinting the email with permission.)

“I don’t know what will happen. Time will tell. But last night on the NewsHour, John Harwood (whose grasp of politics and policy is, in my view, negligible) speculated that a shutdown would not occur, given ‘John Boehner’s reputation as a deal maker and a legislator.’ Do you know what Harwood could possibly be talking about?”

I looked up the transcript, and Harwood, whom I hold in higher regard than G.S. does, said, “John Boehner, as a veteran deal-maker and legislator in the Congress, knows that he’s not going to get $61 billion in cuts.” In context, Harwood suggested the crisis can be averted because the Speaker will go into the talks with a pragmatic attitude.

I don’t share that optimism, but putting that aside, let’s unpack this a bit. First, on the notion that Boehner realizes he’s not going to get everything he wants, he’s offered no hints of such awareness, at least not publicly. His opening bid was, “Give us everything we want.” This was followed by, “Give us everything we want, or we’ll shut down the government.” As of yesterday, his line is, “Let’s compromise. Give us everything we want on a prorated basis, or we’ll shut down the government.”

Second, to the question from G.S., what’s this stuff about the Speaker being a “veteran deal-maker”? That’s not necessarily an outlandish claim. Boehner has been in Congress for two decades, and his reputation as someone capable of negotiating with his colleagues is fairly credible — at least, it used to be.

A while back, I was talking to a friend who works as a House committee staffer for the Dems. When Boehner’s name came up, he said, “John Boehner has three cares in the world: cut taxes, go golfing, and smoke cigarettes — and not necessarily in that order.” When looking for a GOP leader to have in the room for a set of negotiations, these aren’t exactly bad traits. Boehner doesn’t know much about public policy, he doesn’t much care, and he’d just as soon wrap up boring conversations on the Hill so he can make his tee time or get a nicotine fix.

With this Republican caucus, there are certainly far worse GOP members Dems could try to negotiate with.

But there are two angles to keep in mind. The first is that Boehner’s changed as his caucus changed, so his reputation no longer matters as much. Remember, a month after the midterm elections, he appeared on “60 Minutes” and refused to even use the word “compromise.” Lesley Stahl said that Boehner seemed “afraid of the word.” He replied, “I reject the word.”

Veteran deal-makers generally don’t talk this way.

Also note, Boehner is an unusually weak Speaker. I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense — I mean it in the sense that Boehner isn’t calling the shots, he’s taking orders. It’s the Republican rank-and-file who’s telling the leadership what’s acceptable, rather than the other way around.

It’s why I have so little confidence in the Speaker as a “veteran deal-maker,” at least when it comes to spending and the budget. He’s not at the negotiating table as John Boehner, the guy who knows how to strike a reasonable compromise. Rather, the Speaker’s there as a mouthpiece for a rabid, right-wing caucus that’s been told to never compromise with anyone about anything.