Monday, July 25, 2011

Who's on a Shorter Leash?

Reducing political conflicts to interpersonal affairs is a staple of melodramatic political commentary and politicians playing weak political hands. Until Obama threw up his arms in frustration at his press conference Friday, there was a lot of talk about the political fight over raising the debt ceiling being something personal between him and John Boehner. Indeed, Obama was doing his best to leave just that impression himself last Friday when he complained about how many times Boehner has left him at the altar.  Obama had thrown himself headlong in the debt-ceiling negotiations because he welcomed the chance to showcase his exemplary personal moderation and readiness to make "tough choices."

Elected politicians, however, undertake political battles not as principals, but as the agent of actual or potential constituencies. What they can get done is a function of their constituency’s capacity to act collectively. Obama's playing a jilted bride because he doesn’t want to call attention to the fact that he’d suddenly emerged as a born-again deficit hawk because he was trying to speak for enough independent voters freaked out by the public debt and runaway entitlements to get himself reelected. (See Elizabeth Drew here.) Yet he could only push things so far in that endeavor without exciting rebellion in his Democratic base. The “big” debt-ceiling deal he was seeking was a way of threading the needle.

Friday’s press conference was Obama’s admission that Boehner wouldn’t let him pull it off. Apparently having determined that he couldn’t afford to be seen capitulating to Boehner over taxes, the president has now apparently deputized Harry Reid to do his capitulating for him. How else can you interpret Reid’s latest proposal of more budget cuts than Obama was offering and no tax increases at all, as long as Republicans consent to extending the debt-ceiling enough to get us past the next election.

We hear, endlessly, about Boehner’s being kept on a short leash by the obstreperous Republican House caucus, especially the tea party faction that resists raising the debt-ceiling under any circumstances. Jonathan Chait, for example, has decided that the leash is so short that Boehner hasn’t any room to maneuver at all:
“Between members who hate raising the debt ceiling and members who hate taxes and members who hate cutting a grand bargain with Obama (however favorable the terms), [Boehner] can't do anything. So the default plan, as it were, is to do nothing: Keep the debt ceiling hanging around, don't make a deal, don't raise taxes. Boehner's plan seems entirely designed to minimize objections within his caucus.”
That's one way of looking at things.  Notice, however, that Boehner’s the guy who’s reportedly getting his caucus geared up for not one, but two debt-ceiling-raising votes, apparently on the theory that he can secure enough Republican votes for deal that trades modest revenue increases folded into tax reform for a Democratic buy-in on entitlement cuts. Reid, on the hand, is the guy who apparently doesn’t think he can hold his caucus together behind tax increases or modest entitlement cuts in the run-up to an election in which control of the Senate hangs in the balance.  It doesn't look like red-state Democratric incumbents will buy into the former, or blue-state incumbents will buy into the latter.  If Reid had control of his caucus, the Senate would already have passed a budget.

Does that sound to you like Boehner’s the guy on the shorter leash?

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