Who’d have thought John Boehner would be the one to reinvigorate sympathy for Barack Obama?
Reports of acid exchanges between the two during moments of negotiations notwithstanding, they have by all accounts hammered out a positive working relationship. Until the budget negotiations erupted into center-stage drama the president had been casually dismissive about them, assuring the press that responsibility for their success fell under the competent umbrella of Vice President Biden. The President’s focus was split between the immediate issue of the debt ceiling and the abstract issue of the economy, while his reelection campaign swung into full gear.
Of course the subtext for all those issues was the inevitable 2012 budget, so in a masterful display of choreographed dynamism, the Obama/Biden White House took John Boehner and his friend from Ohio John Kasich out for a game of golf on on a Sunny Saturday morning in June. The press treated this event with all the deference a real negotiation would have called for, and none of the seriousness. “Obama & Boehner both wearing white polo shirts and khakis,” CBS Whitehouse correspondent Mark Knoller twitter. “Obama in long pants, Boehner in shorts. Biden also in khaki shorts. Kasich long.”
The message was clear: everything is fine. A few days later Republican Congressional Leader Eric Cantor broke away from the negotiating table to announce publicly and loudly that he wouldn’t sign onto any agreement that included a tax increase. This might have been theater as well. Slate’s John Dickersondeclared it in no uncertain terms a Hollywood climax. It regardless only confirmed the underpinning assumption that at some point the President was going to have to get involved. By the next day, he had.
And with his involvement came the nation’s focus. The economy, the debt ceiling and the budget conversations merged into one giant conversation about America’s financial future. A fundraiser in Montana was canceled. As was a Senate recess. The president authoritatively squelched the partisan grandstanding over Medicare and taxes in speeches. He announced his ambition to trim the deficit by $4 trillion. Both these movements were seconded by the Speaker, and the two of them retired into a camera-less room to hash out the specifics, while the larger Congress took shots at the process from the darkness of their legislative chambers.
Which meant the space was empty for a Congressional leader to galvanize his or her rank-and-file base into a full-throated opposition of whatever concessions it stood to reason the other side was demanding. And it was Eric Cantor, who’d already cowboyed out of the talks on taxes, who already had the press’s ear. The Republican rank-and-file held firm, and John Boehner declared his round in the negotiations had reached an impasse. Then on Sunday night, Republicans held a Congressional meeting that saw Eric Cantor raise the party’s voice on its conviction to remain steadfast on taxes. Instead of an across-the-board massive budget overhaul, he would settle for smaller spending cuts and nothing that would touch existing tax codes. Some Republicans found the move transparently political, but some liked the way it sounded, and once again John Boehner was caught working too far center of the freshman right on a budget bill. Only this time there’s someone else they can turn to.
Obama’s maintained for a long time now that what he’s been doing is trying to lead. Well, leading is hard, and there’s always someone who profits by your failure to do it. Speaker Boehner, a former bomb-thrower, has reminded us of that. But if Eric Cantor succeeds in taking over the throne it will be because the heavy weight at Congress’s far right doesn’t feel part of the institution enough to keep from lobbing bombs at it. Tying that party together would be a mark of astounding leadership. Boehner’s walk out means he might not have what it takes. But I can almost guarantee Cantor doesn’t.