Friday, December 21, 2012

Blundering Boehner

Back in graduate school, when I was first learning about schools of historical interpretation, I read about the so-called "Blundering Generation" theory of the Civil War. The idea was something like this: the Civil War was no inevitable conflict, but rather the result of a poor generation of political leaders. Whereas the first generation of the Founders and the second generation of the Jacksonian era found ways to compromise and preserve the Union, the third generation, coming into its own in the 1850s, had failed. Political ineptitude, not irreconcilable differences, produced the war.

The word "blundering" leapt to mind Thursday night when I heard that Speaker John Boehner was withdrawing his own proposal to avoid the ill-named "fiscal cliff" because he could not get his own party to vote for it.

What has happened to the GOP?

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of party discipline among Congressional Democrats when compared to the lockstep nature of Congressional Republicans. The relative lack of success in passing Obama's agenda was due at least in part to the extraordinary unity showed by the GOP.

That was then, this is now. Of course much has changed. Republicans have controlled the House for two years now. But Democrats still control the Senate as they did then, and the president has been re-elected. And yet, the GOP is a mess. Even when the Republican Speaker of the House said he needed support for a bill in order to get leverage in negotiations with the president, he failed because enough of his own party members told him to take a hike rather than vote for even the most minimal tax hike (only on income over $1 million a year).

So who, or what, is to blame? Is Boehner a blunderer, someone who is (as Rachel Maddow has been saying almost since he became Speaker) simply bad at his job?  Or is there something deeper going on here?

I confess that I've always thought the "Blundering Generation" thesis of the Civil War was something of a cop out, a way of avoiding analysis of the complex political, economic, and social forces that produced the political failures of the 1850s and early 1860s.

In this instance, however, there is something to be said for the idea that Boehner is simply blundering. Friday morning on NPR's Morning Edition, correspondent Scott Horsely noted that while Boehner's "Plan B" could not pass without near unanimity among House Republicans, that did not mean that no plan could pass the House. A compromise proposal that garnered votes from both Democrats and at least some Republicans could certainly pass:
It could win a majority with Democratic support if Speaker Boehner were willing to bring it to the floor. That would take a level of statesmanship we have not seen so far and it could be the end of Speaker Boehner - his speakership.
And there it is: if there is no agreement, it will be because the Speaker is more concerned with keeping his title than in solving the problem, because he failed the test of leadership and did not rise to be a statesman. This is the "Blundering Generation" critique.

In a sense, Boehner is the victim of his own previous success. When he was faced with doing little more than saying "hell, no!' to whatever the president proposed, Republican unity served him reasonably well.

But now he is in the position of having to be for something, of needing to do something that will also be acceptable to the president and enough Democrats in the Senate to pass and become law. He cannot do that and maintain complete GOP unity, because at least some of the Tea Party members will never go along.

The question now is which he will choose.

I have observed many times (here and here, e.g.) that the Tea Party mindset shares much in common with the uncompromising southern position before the Civil War. As Rep. Steve LaTourette (R), from Ohio said last night, there was no use appealing to them: "we have been doing that for two years with these people and all they -- they become martyrs. They become martyrs in the eyes of these extreme groups."

Historians of the "Blundering Generation" school blame the extreme, uncompromising "fire-eaters"(and the other "leaders" who enabled them) for failing to find political solutions in the secession crisis. I suspect there were no plausible political solutions left to be found in 1860-1861.

There are solutions today, however. Our disagreements are not as fundamental as theirs were. Does anyone really think that Boehner and Obama cannot find a budget agreement that includes both tax hikes and spending cuts and that can win majority support in both Houses of Congress? Of course they can. As Horsely put it, however, it will "take a level of statesmanship we have not seen so far" from Boehner.

If he cannot find the courage to be a leader and statesman, if he continues to submit to the political blackmail of the Tea Party martyrs, John Boehner will truly have earned the title "blunderer."