In the midst of a budget fight not seen in Washington in over a decade -- with the possibility of a government shutdown looming -- it's interesting to see how the two men at the heart of the standoff seem to be the least fervent ideologues of either party. What this means for the negotiations themselves is anyone's guess, but it's hard not to see how uncomfortable both Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama are at this sort of bare-knuckles game.
John Boehner, if "insider" reports can be believed, shared one thing in common with President Obama -- a desire to "change the way we do things in Washington" -- when he stepped up to the Speaker's chair. This mostly went unnoticed beyond congressional wonks, but Boehner really did seem to be offended at the way both parties had run the House in recent years. His was going to be a different type of House -- one where debate was free and open, and where he personally wouldn't be jamming any bills down the throat of both the opposition and his own party. He soon learned, however, the political consequences of trying to do things differently than either Nancy Pelosi or Denny Hastert had done them.
When the House began work this year, Boehner tried his new way of doing things with the first round of budget bills. The press ran stories of how undisciplined the new Republican House was, and how Boehner couldn't get a majority of his own caucus in order when it came time to line up votes. A big part of his problem was that the Tea Party Republican faction in the House is not very open to following their own party's leadership. This isn't all that surprising, seeing as how the Tea Partiers see themselves as a grass-roots movement driven by regular voters' concerns. To keep this self-image intact, it seems almost inevitable that they would be unruly when it came to voting the way Boehner wanted them to vote. Since that time, things have gotten worse, in terms of party cohesiveness. The last temporary budget fix passed the House in what can only be called a bipartisan fashion, as dozens of Republicans voted against it and dozens of Democrats supported it. This may be the only way a government shutdown can be avoided in the next few days, as well.
Unfortunately for Boehner, the dissenters are pressuring him into refusing pretty much any deal the White House and the Democrats offer. They want the whole ball of wax, and some of the Tea Party faction actually relishes the prospect of shutting down the government. Boehner recently signaled that he has been listening to them, when he announced that he wasn't going to approve any deal that couldn't pass with a straight majority vote in the House from his caucus (218 Republican votes, in other words). This was, doubtlessly, meant to reassure the Tea Partiers, since such a number would be impossible to hit without them.
But Boehner isn't really all that comfortable staking out such an extreme position. This would be even more partisan than the way Denny Hastert ran the House, which was not exactly how Boehner wanted to run his House (again, if insider reports can be believed). It hasn't stopped Boehner from posturing in front of the cameras this week, however. Perhaps he's hoping that if he projects the image of fighting hard to carry the Tea Party Republicans' water, they'll go along with him when he cuts the almost-inevitable deal with the Obama White House. "I fought as hard as I could," you can picture him saying to his caucus, "and this is the best we can get." Boehner was around the last time the government really did shut down, and he remembers full well who got blamed for it -- the guy who was Speaker of the House.
Boehner's natural inclination would be to cut a deal and proclaim victory. But he knows this may not be enough for the Tea Party faction. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, Barack Obama seems just as uncomfortable with the role he is now assuming as Bargainer-in-Chief for the Democrats.
Obama doesn't exactly relish such legislative controversy. He is much more comfortable outlining broad legislative goals and then stepping back and letting Congress do all the negotiating and bargaining. Obama is not known for drawing lines in the sand, to put it mildly. On major legislation, Obama is content to stay mostly on the sidelines and goad Congress to get something -- anything -- passed which loosely fits a set of goals he has laid out. The nuts-and-bolts negotiating such legislation requires is not Obama's favorite thing to do, by far.
Which is why Barack Obama is looking just as uncomfortable in front of the cameras these days as John Boehner. His impromptu press conference yesterday showed his frustration with the entire process, and how he would truly like to position himself as the "adult in the room" who is above the fray of the give-and-take. This is a much more comfortable role for Obama, but he may no longer have the luxury of staying out of the dealmaking the way he did when both houses of Congress were controlled by his party. To be blunt, it's hard to see Harry Reid and John Boehner agreeing to much of anything in the near future, no matter how critical the legislation may be.
Which means presidential leadership is called for. Obama, to be fair, has been involved in the budget negotiations more than the press has given him credit for, recently. But he sees his role as almost painfully non-partisan -- again, the grownup among squabbling (partisan) children. This isn't going to work every single time over the next two years, though. This is merely the first big congressional battle over legislation which critically must be passed. It's nowhere near the last one, or even the biggest one (the upcoming fight over extending the debt limit will have much worse consequences if it doesn't pass on time, for instance).
Obama truly does want to "change the way Washington works," as he campaigned on. Even more than Boehner, he wants to change Washington's partisan culture. This has annoyed his own party no end, as he accepts compromises with Republicans -- and then gets absolutely no Republican votes for his efforts in Congress. Obama has barely even used the most powerful tool presidents have: the veto. He's only even threatened to veto legislation a handful of times in his entire presidency. He is not very comfortable drawing lines in the sand, as he sees himself more in the "Can't we all just get along?" mold of politician. Even now, days from a shutdown, the only line in the sand Obama has tangibly drawn seems to be that the Tea Party folks are "not going to get 100 percent" of what they want.
Of course, none of us really knows what is taking place behind closed doors in private conversations among the major players in the budget fight. All the posturing may solely be for the benefit of the cameras, to shore up both sides' political base. A deal may indeed be close to being struck. Or not -- as I said, nobody really knows right now who isn't physically in the room during such discussions.
But what's striking to me is how neither one of the two men who are going to have to be at the heart of any deal seems very eager to be in the position they find themselves in right now. President Obama seems to want to position himself for the 2012 re-election campaign as some sort of post-Democratic Democrat who can be the president "of all Americans, not just Democrats." John Boehner just seems downright terrified of the Tea Party whirlwind blowing through the Republican Party. It can't help Boehner that pundits are openly speculating whether he will eventually be deposed as Speaker in favor of a more acceptable candidate to the Tea Partiers (such as Eric Cantor, who is waiting in the wings). Boehner knows he's got to appear to be as fire-breathing as possible, therefore the closer to a government shutdown he gets (without actually shutting the government down), the more acceptable Boehner is to the Tea Party Republicans. Obama, on the other hand, knows that if he capitulates fully to the Tea Party demands, he will have totally abdicated his role as party leader -- so he also benefits from tough posturing (without actually drawing any clear lines in the sand).
But neither one of them looks very comfortable in their respective combative positions. In fact, both of them look downright reluctant to be leading this fight for their side. Both of them know that this fight is important because it is the first big political test of the year. Both of them know that if they are seen by their base as giving away too much, it's going to hurt them politically. But neither one of them look like they're happy at the roles they have been slated to play in this drama. Call them reluctant bargainers, at best.
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