THE BLOG
12/02/2014 08:03 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

Shut It Down: Boehner as Moderate

Tom Williams via Getty Images

It's a sign of how far right the Republican Party has moved that John Boehner is the standard bearer for moderate Republicans. But there's a new meaning to the word "moderate" that illuminates the new political reality for the GOP and for the country.

A Republican "moderate" used to be someone who believed in low taxes for everyone, infrastructure investment, individual privacy rights, the centrality of business interests large and small and the civil rights and liberties of the people. Nelson Rockefeller, Dwight Eisenhower, Wendell Wilkie, Jon Huntsman. No such person exists in the hard-right, lockstep House Republican Caucus. The range of substantive positions is extremely narrow on abortion, to austerity economics, to the environment, to voter suppression. There is no serious dissent on policy matters.

On style, it's entirely different. What divides the Republican Party today is a series of differences about what tactics will get them to the same end result. Repeal Obamacare, end abortion, cut taxes and environmental regulation, build the Keystone pipeline, charter schools, no immigration reform, keep hammering Benghazi, everyone is on the same page. Impeach Obama, wait a second. And shut down the government, that's where the line gets drawn.

Boehner is making no secret of his willingness to throw his weight around to stop what he believes are self-destructive political tactics. His Tea Party wing doesn't disagree with his policies, they're infuriated by what looks like civil conversations with Obama and reluctance to use his new majority to slowly redefine the Federal government. Now, if you believe that American liberty and economic prosperity are endangered solely by the Federal government it's foolish to do anything but shut it down, no matter how unpopular that may be with swing voters. After all you don't get revolutions by increment, you have to change the paradigm. But the political cost of a shutdown has Wall Street and big donors scared. They're banking on Boehner to keep tactics out of the headlines.

It would do both parties good to have a contest of ideas, rather than a contest of tactics. The Dems do have people like Joe Manchin of West Virginian and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who pridefully and publicly reject a good deal of conventional Democratic dogma, Oh that the Republicans would find someone similar. In the absence of such intellectual diversity we have a diversity of tactics and an orthodoxy of ideas. So John Boehner emerges as the great Republican "moderate" because he believes that shutting down the government is a political mistake, even if it would be fun to try.

The country is not served when intellectual and policy competition withers away. But politically Boehner is right, in every sense of the word. The Republican victory in 2014 was substantially because the crazy birthers and "legitimate rape" folks were weeded out by the big money boys. If the remaining Tea Party element shuts down the government then Republicans will wilt away quickly. If Boehner wins, then Republicans will be able to battle about ideas and Dems will have to counter them with a clear set of policies. Dems should win that fight, but it will be much easier if Republican tactics become what voters focus on.