How John Boehner Spared Democrats Their Own Civil War

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

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill, January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Boehner said he believes the U.S. should not default on its debt. 
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
Feb. 18, 2014, 3:06 p.m.

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.

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