Why the Right Never Liked Substance-Over-Style Boehner

The right of the Republican Party can’t accept that it will never get everything it wants.

President Barack Obama and House speaker John Boehner talk in the garden of the White House in Washington DC, July 3, 2011
President Barack Obama and House speaker John Boehner talk in the garden of the White House in Washington DC, July 3, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

Outgoing House speaker John Boehner may have done more to restrain government’s growth than any Republican in office today. Yet he is derided by many conservatives. Why?

Perhaps because Boehner got things done the hard way and spent less time boasting about it.

Some conservatives literally cheered on Friday when Boehner announced he was stepping down. Their heroes are doctrine Republicans like Texas senator Ted Cruz, a candidate for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

Cruz rubbed salt in Boehner’s wounds on Friday when he predicted that the speaker would “land in a cushy [lobbyist] job after joining with the Democrats to implement all of President Obama’s priorities.”

Cruz is the ultimate manifestation of style over substance so it useful to compare his accomplishment to Boehner’s.

Last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that ten-year deficit projections had shrunk $5 trillion since 2010, the year Republicans won back their majority in the House of Representatives.

Vox‘s Dylan Matthews reports that the bulk of the savings, $3.2 trillion, came from spending cuts enacted through the post-debt ceiling crisis Budget Control Act, spending cuts negotiated in early 2011, the Bush tax cuts deal of late 2012, the Murray-Ryan spending deal of 2013 and last year’s farm bill.

In fairness, there were tax increases as well — which Republicans opposed — but Boehner still cut far more than one of his most immediate predecessors, Newt Gingrich. At least four times as much, by Matthews’ reckoning.

Yet Gingrich is a hero of the same small-government right that sees Boehner as at best a wimp. In 2012, he was a viable contender for the party’s presidential nomination. Boehner, despite winning thirteen elections in the ultimate presidential swing state of Ohio, wouldn’t stand a chance in a Republican primary.

Again, there are vast differences in style. Like Cruz, Gingrich is a master at self-promotion and willing to embrace whatever conservative position is fashionable at the moment even if it contradicts his previously-held beliefs. Cruz earlier this year reversed his position on giving President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate a free-trade deal with other Pacific nations when it turned out his supporters cared less about free trade than they did about opposing Obama. Gingrich famously changed his position on an individual mandate in health insurance. When Republicans were in the majority, he supported it; when Obama proposed it, Gingrich had changed his mind.

Boehner was less attentive to the whims of the conservative movement and, to the desperation of the least compromising members of his conference, willing to work with the other party to govern.

The right of the party rejected all those spending deals Boehner negotiated even though they helped stave off a serious funding crisis — because they didn’t give them everything they wanted.

The difference between the speaker and them, argues Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, is that the latter believe they can ask the impossible and then Democrats will meet them halfway.

In reality, she writes, negotiations are defined by what is called the “zone of possible agreement,” or ZOPA.

Anything that either side considers worse than no deal at all is outside of the ZOPA and no amount of strategery is going to get you there.

It’s why Republicans have been unable to get a deal that cuts entitlements — even if they are in dire need of an overhaul — and why Democrats aren’t going to get Scandinavian-level tax rates.

Demand too much, McArdle warns, and the other side will simply walk away.

A recent demonstration of this theory came when Greece demanded relief from austerity this spring without canceling its financial support from the rest of the European Union. The country said it was willing to exit the euro if it didn’t get its way. Rather than convince Greece’s creditors that they needed to relax the conditions of the bailout, the threat almost convinced them that Greece was beyond salvation. In the end, the country had no choice but to accept even more austerity to prevent bankruptcy.

Boehner understood that intransigence wasn’t going to get the Republicans closer to what they wanted. By negotiating — with a strong majority behind him and perhaps helped by the occasional demonstration of power — he succeeded where the likes of Cruz failed and got deep spending cuts done.

McArdle isn’t optimistic that base Republicans will learn their limits and accept that they’re never going to get 100 percent.

Maybe they need to elect someone who will try what they’ve been longing for: a full throated, take-no-prisoners approach that doesn’t bother with compromise or concession. Like the Greeks, they’ll discover that this leaves them worse off, not better.

It would turn the middle of the country against Republicans and while that might not dramatically reduce their majority in the gerrymandered House, it would most likely cause them to lose control in the Senate — and almost certainly hand Hillary Clinton the presidency.

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