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Congress

How John Boehner Spared Democrats Their Own Civil War

And the unlikely hero who headed off an internal reckoning over entitlements.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
February 18, 2014

While there are plenty of forces working against Democrats heading into this year's election, one thing party strategists say they do have going for them is unity, especially compared with the fractious Republican coalition. There's only one competitive Democratic Senate primary this year (in Hawaii, a state expected to vote blue regardless), and apart from a few lower-profile issues such as education policy and trade, Democrats have largely coalesced around a common economic and social policy agenda.

At House Democrats' retreat last week, President Obama thanked the lawmakers for their cohesiveness on the recent debt-ceiling fight, saying, "When you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off."

But it's worth noting just how close Obama came to tipping off a potential civil war in his party not too long ago, and recognizing the unlikely hero they have to thank for sparing them a great deal of pain (at least if you believe the White House's version of events).

 

For this alternate history, we have to go back to July 2011, when the prospect of a "grand bargain" felt as real in Washington as the summer humidity. Obama wanted Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans to agree to new tax revenue and, in exchange, was willing to put on the table meaningful cuts to entitlement programs, Democrats' most sacred of cows.

It would be a while before we learned the exact terms of the prospective deal, but when journalist Bob Woodward a year later published a confidential internal memo laying out the White House offer, liberals were furious. The president was prepared to put all the three major entitlement programs on the chopping block: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, along with Tricare, the military's health plan.

"Take that, Democratic Party brand," the liberal AmericaBlog responded at the time, wryly thanking the tea-party wing of the GOP for scuttling the deal. "I don't think we can count on that kind of help" again.

There's some debate as to who poisoned negotiations that summer—the White House or Republicans, with each side blaming the other—but either way, the collapse of the prospective deal spared Democrats from what surely would have been a bitter internal reckoning over entitlements.

"Had the speaker taken the deal, it's likely that debate inside the Democratic Party would have become a real battle," says Matt Bennett, senior vice president at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, which believes entitlement reform is an inevitable necessity. "When he walked away from the table, Boehner deferred that debate and unwittingly helped to unify Democrats as we went into 2012 and thereafter."

Those cuts would have been anathema to liberals, and cause for revolt. When Obama later showed willingness to trim some Social Security benefits by changing the way inflation adjustments are calculated, liberals on and off Capitol Hill threatened mutiny. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid literally tore up a proposal to end the fiscal-cliff standoff that included the change and threw the shreds into a lit fireplace in his office. "I am terribly disappointed and will do everything in my power to block President Obama's proposal," independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said when Obama included the Social Security tweak in the budget the White House released last April.

The issue remains sensitive to this day. A letter circulating this week among House Democrats, which urges Obama not to include the Social Security change in his next budget proposal, garnered 108 signatories as of Tuesday afternoon, more than half the caucus.

On Friday, 16 Democratic senators, including several up for reelection this year such as Alaska's Mark Begich, went even further in their own letter. "With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we urge you not to propose cuts in your budget to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits—cuts which would make life even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable people in America," the senators wrote, hoping to take entitlements off the table entirely.

Fortunately, for the lawmakers and several dozen outside groups who signed those letters, any hopes for a grand bargain are almost certainly dead for the moment and the entitlement programs are probably safe.

It's always tricky to explore counterfactuals, but one can only imagine what would be happening inside the party right now had Boehner taken the bargain two and a half years ago. But don't expect Democrats sending the speaker a fruit basket anytime soon.

This article appears in the February 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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