Why the GOP May Regret Losing Boehner

Why the GOP May Regret Losing Boehner
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John Boehner’s surprise announcement last weekend that he will resign shocked the political world. The loudest reactions were cheers from conservative Republicans, especially those gathered at the Values Voter Summit. But I think their delight is premature, perhaps grossly so.

There are two main reasons. First, Boehner was actually quite a bit more effective at advancing a right-of-center agenda than his critics will admit. There’s no guarantee that his likely successor, Kevin McCarthy of California, shares these skills (especially since McCarthy has been in Washington for less than a decade).

Second, the underlying issue that led to Boehner’s resignation has not dissipated. If anything, now that conservatives have been rewarded with a scalp, it has been amplified. The next speaker, who may or may not share Boehner’s skills, is going into this job knowing there is a determined minority in his caucus that is willing to deny him his job. This sword of Damocles will almost certainly affect his decisions as he attempts to lead an unruly caucus.

First, Boehner was an effective center-right speaker.

For all the kvetching about Republican majorities not accomplishing anything, Boehner’s Republicans managed to accomplish an awful lot. There are three clear examples where Boehner helped get Republicans far better deals than they could reasonably have expected. First, under Boehner, Republicans really have managed to apply the brakes to federal spending. If you don’t believe me, consider the following chart:

This shows federal expenditures from 1947 to the present, on a quarterly, seasonally adjusted basis. Note that the chart flat lines in early 2011, right when Republicans take control of the House. This change in the second derivative is all the more impressive given that entitlement spending has increased during this time period (as it automatically does).

This second chart brings things into fuller relief. It shows the year-over-year increase in quarterly federal spending:

Since 1948, there have been exactly 18 quarters (out of 270) where federal spending was lower than it was in the previous year. Ten of those instances occurred between 1948 and 1955. The other eight occurred between 2011 and today. It is true that this number has begun to rise again, but again, perspective is needed. Of the 250 quarters between 1948 and 2011, 191 of them have larger increases than the largest increase in the 2011-15 period. Since 2001, only one quarter (Q4 2006) saw a smaller increase (the increase was smaller by .03 percent).

A big reason for this is sequestration, which came about as part of the debt ceiling showdown of 2011. People forget today, but in 2012, most observers assumed that the sequestration caps would be discarded, and in 2013 there was tremendous pressure on the Republican Party to abandon sequestration and agree to a package of spending cuts and tax increases. A good deal of this pressure came from within the Republican Party, from neoconservatives who loathed the defense spending cuts. Also, in the interim, extended unemployment benefits expired.

Those caps have since been relaxed (in a deal struck in part by Paul Ryan), but have not been abandoned (although Democrats are hoping conservatives forcing a shutdown gives them an opening to remove them altogether). But let’s not forget: Republicans under Boehner managed to accomplish this while controlling just one half of Congress. That’s no small feat.

More impressive was the deal he brokered on the so-called “fiscal cliff” of 2012-2013. To recap: The Bush tax cuts were all set to expire, meaning that all citizens who paid federal income taxes were due for a substantial increase. President Obama wanted taxes increased on citizens earning more than $250,000 per year, while conservative Republicans wanted no increase whatsoever.

Negotiations reportedly opened with Boehner attempting to avoid an increase in the tax rates, and asking the president what he could get in return for an equivalent amount of revenue increases from other sources. The president responded: “You get nothing ... I get that for free.”  

Republicans had very little leverage in this transaction. The president had just won re-election, the Democrats had picked up seats in both houses of Congress, and Republicans seemed likely to catch the blame if everyone’s taxes went up. Yet, after lengthy negotiations, Republicans walked away with a (roughly) $450,000 cutoff for the tax increase. This was accomplished after a tough election, with control of just one house of Congress.

Finally, Boehner managed to walk a fine line on the immigration issue. While Mitch McConnell allowed a bill to pass the Senate with inflated majorities, Boehner managed to kill it. Again, this was in the face of substantial internal pressures in the party to pass such legislation.

Even the Obamacare shutdown of 2013, which arguably cost Republicans control of the Virginia governorship and almost certainly cost them the Commonwealth’s attorney general’s office, was something Boehner managed in an attempt to demonstrate the folly of the shutdown strategy, keeping conservatives at bay for a couple of years.

Second, things won’t be better for the next speaker. They could be worse.

It’s true that by resigning, Boehner allows a continuing resolution to pass with Democratic votes, averting a shutdown in the near-term. Instead, Republicans will be forced to revisit this issue in December.

If you’ve ever played a team sport—or follow sports—you know that a key concept is “buying in” to the coach’s ideas how the game should be played. If players don’t buy in, it creates problems. Basically what just occurred is that 20 to 30 members on the right of the Republican caucus decided that they simply don’t buy in to Boehner’s approach, and threatened to force him to rely on Democratic votes to retain his speakership. It’s as if the offensive line simply announced, “We’re not blocking anymore. Good luck winning the game.” 

This tactic has cost the old coach his job. But the new coach enters the job knowing that the offensive line is perfectly willing to stop blocking if it’s displeased with his approach. 

So the incoming coach, perhaps McCarthy, is going to face a lot of pressure to accommodate the offensive line. The problem is, the tactics that the offensive line advocates are historically ineffective. To wit: It’s true that the Republican Party had a very good 2014 election. It’s also true that the best that can be said about the government shutdown is that it did no lasting damage. Consider the following chart of the generic ballot from late 2013: 

It isn’t that difficult to see where the shutdown begins—right where the big surge in the Democratic lead in the generic ballot begins. It’s more difficult to see where it ends: Republicans’ poll numbers don’t recover until mid-November, when the backlash from the Obamacare rollout hits in full force.

It’s one thing to force a shutdown in November of the off-off year. It’s another to do so in February or March of the presidential election year, when a large portion of the Republican field will be involved in the presidential primaries. 

This leads to the ultimate nightmare scenario for conservatives: A relatively inexperienced speaker trying to manage an unruly caucus could be pressured into trying out some of its preferred tactics, and there is a very good chance that it will fail to accomplish anything. But they could also lead to a prolonged shutdown in a presidential year, which many of the party’s presidential candidates could be forced to back. Another fight over the debt ceiling likewise looms.

Conservatives are understandably frustrated. They’ve notched substantial electoral victories in the past five years, yet Obama continues to advance much of his agenda through executive orders. Their attempts to use the power of the purse to stall this agenda have been ineffective. Much of this is an outgrowth of the constitutional order, combined with President Obama’s willingness to stretch his powers to their fullest extent (and perhaps past that extent). 

But a prolonged battle over the budget or a catastrophic fight over the debt ceiling could have a substantial impact on the party’s ability to win the presidency and hold the Senate, both of which are close calls as of this writing (the presidency more so than the Senate). Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that their House majorities are inviolable, either (a subject for another article).

The biggest accomplishment of Boehner’s term as speaker has been keeping the warring factions of the Tea Party wing and the establishment wing away from each others’ throats. There’s no guarantee McCarthy will be up to that task; there’s a reasonable chance that he won’t be. If he isn’t, conservatives could lose everything. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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