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. 
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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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