Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Off The Rails

Ezra Klein over at the Washington Post writes that he doesn't "understand the Republican position on the sequester."  Klein notes that Republicans have five goals in the budget talks and that Obama has basically given them four of them.

Republicans want to cut the deficit, cut entitlements, protect defense spending, simplify the tax code, and lower tax rates.  The White House proposal as it stands does the first four of those things and yet Republicans seem willing to leave it on the table because it doesn't accomplish the fifth.  

From a "getting what you want" standpoint, Klein is right.  The GOP isn't in power and it's very rare that a party out of power gets 80% of what it wants from the party in power but this isn't about "the party" because the Republican Party isn't the unified block it was just a few years ago.

Maybe one of the reasons John Boehner is being so stubborn about the sequestration negotiations is that he knows exactly how unstable the GOP is right now. An article in the New York Times points out that a gaggle of "top advisers to former President George W. Bush, four former governors and two members of Congress — have signed a legal brief arguing that gay people have a constitutional right to marry, a position that amounts to a direct challenge to Speaker John A. Boehner and reflects the civil war in the party since the November election."

In light of that civil war and the impending dissolution of the libertarian/theocratic/business trifecta that has formed the backbone of the Republican Party for the better part of the last 30 years, Boehner basically has three options at this point and none of them are terribly good.

1. Boehner can sign on to the President's plan.  To be clear, this isn't going to happen, but if it did it would certainly cost Boehner his speakership.  The Tea Party already views Boehner as a Washington insider and therefore part of the problem; while raising taxes might be good policy, it makes for bad politics in the Republican ranks wherein hard-line anti-tax views are a kind of political shibboleth.  

2. He can recommit in good faith to negotiations with President Obama.  While such negotiations may not involve a significant betrayal of whatever passes for the core of the Republican ideology, the appearance will be Boehner meeting frequently in closed door sessions with a President who inspires foaming-at-the-mouth hatred in a small but very vocal segment of the Republican base.  Meeting with Obama will surely galvanize the paranoid fringe of the Tea Party against Boehner and that will widen the split between the rational few in the GOP who've been playing along with the social conservative movement these past few decades and those who've been guzzling the "God, Gays, and Guns" kool-aid.  If the Speaker does this expect to see some major primary challengers to a lot of Republicans in 2014, none of whom will have a fighting chance in the general elections.

3. He can let the ax fall, as he probably will.  If Boehner simply stalls and lets the sequester go through as planned he can attempt to deflect some of the blame towards President Obama.  The polls show that won't be terribly successful but he will likely keep his speakership and might even manage to keep the Tea Party faction of the GOP happy for another few months.  

Boehner and his allies are fighting for their political lives right now and very few people are aware of it.  The reality is that as goes this sequester so also goes the Republican establishment.  If Boehner caves, if he appears willing to work with Obama, or if the sequester cuts prove damaging or painful to certain key Republican constituencies then the fragile coalition that holds the GOP together will falter and take Boehner and his network of allies with it.

Boehner will let the Sequester go forward because he has no other hope of preserving his own power, influence, and stature within the Republican Party.  Ultimately, however, that will serve to diminish the party itself.  For Boehner and the brand of Republicanism he represents, there will be no escape.  One way or another the party and the country will condemn him to ignominy and irrelevance.  

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