You’re John Boehner and you might have only two weeks left as speaker of the House. So what do you do? Your choices are: a), Negotiate the best deal you can with President Obama to avoid the huge fiscal-cliff tax hikes and spending cuts that could drive the country into another recession, put it before the House, and pray that enough Republicans join enough Democrats to get it passed; or b), in hopes of holding on to what has to be one of the most aggravating jobs in the country, continue to try to appease hardcore House Republicans who do not seem to understand the results of an election held just last month.
To recap: Obama won reelection by what looks to be nearly 5 million votes, 51 percent to 47 percent. Democrats netted two more seats in the Senate, which they will control 55-45 in January. Republicans lost eight House seats and the House popular vote.
You’d think those numbers would be clear enough. Conservatives can complain all they want about allegedly “skewed” polls that show majorities of people agree with Obama on issues like taxes and trust him more to look out for their interests. But as the cliché goes, the only poll that counts is on Election Day.
Republicans did, of course, keep their House majority, and that gives them a crucial seat at the table. Yet some are behaving as if their victories in districts shaped to ensure maximum security for conservatives constitute a mandate to impose their ideas on a country that just rejected them. That, and the House’s constitutional role as the chamber where tax bills must originate, has brought us to our current impasse.
Boehner’s best move may be to heed the song made famous by Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying” —that is, disregard the moment and focus on what really matters. Is it holding out for a conservative wish list, or averting a huge economic setback for the country and the millions of still-jobless people who were central to GOP promises during the 2012 campaign?
Before there was nominee Mitt Romney critiquing “the Obama economy,” there was Boehner’s constant refrain of “Where are the jobs?” If the jobless are not his primary concern right now, he could consider the business and financial communities that remain largely loyal to the GOP, even as its obstructionism has repeatedly disrupted and stalled the recovery in the past few years. They dread uncertainty, but that’s all they’ve been getting.
It would be consistent with Boehner’s legislative past for him to try to work things out. His record includes productive joint efforts with Democrats on health, education, and employment issues. Boehner did say on Friday that he would continue to pursue a deal with Obama, but he also said he was proud of the GOP conference, accused the president of intransigence, and didn’t inspire confidence about the outcome of talks (“How we get there, God only knows”).
The job of speaker is bifurcated. On the one hand, speakers are elected on party-line votes and are generally seen as leaders of their party. On the other, a speaker is second in line to be president, right after the vice president, in the event of a crisis. That suggests a responsibility loftier than party leader—and after all, there is a House majority leader to be the partisan point person.
That is, admittedly, an idealized view. So here’s one rooted in politics and self-interest: By resuming negotiations with the president and allowing the House to vote on the result, Boehner would do his party a favor by putting a reasonable, sensible face on its leadership. It’s possible he wouldn’t be doing himself a favor. But it's just as possible that after watching this spectacle play out, nobody else will want his job.