Today’s money quote about the shutdown and the debt ceiling mess is brought to you by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
In a Washington Post story about House Speaker John Boehner’s control of Republicans, Graham—a friend of Boehner’s and a member of the House during the last government shutdown—is quoted as saying, “of all the damage to be done politically here, one of the greatest concerns I have is that, somehow, John Boehner gets compromised.” He goes on: “You know, I was involved in taking one speaker down; I’d like to be involved in keeping this speaker, because, quite frankly, I think he deserves it.”
That is an astonishing quote. First of all, John Boehner has long been compromised. He has shown himself to be speaker of the House in name only, unable to effectively lead his party thanks to the antics of its far right wing and the influence of outside forces. Whether or not Boehner eventually loses the speakership for bringing the Senate compromise bill to the House floor, as he was expected to do as of Wednesday morning, the idea that he deserves to remain the party’s leader says a lot—either about the lack of good options on the Republicans’ bench or about the empathy Graham has for anyone trying to lead his splintered party.
Yet perhaps the most alarming part of the quote is that one of Graham’s greatest concerns about the political damage from the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis appears to be whether or not John Boehner keeps his job. What about the fact that Congress is so bitterly partisan that it has become utterly dysfunctional? What about the idea that his party is being controlled by a relatively small bloc of extremists who appear unconcerned about the risk of default? And what about the long-term reputational damage the shutdown and debt ceiling fights have brought to the future of the Republican party?
Whether Boehner’s job is at risk or not, what senior members of the GOP should be most concerned about is, of course, the health of the U.S. economy and how the political fiasco in Washington could damage it. If that isn’t somehow their top priority, their next one should at least be the future of their party, and how many seats they could lose in the next election. The latest NBC-WSJ poll found that seven in 10 people agreed that Republicans are “putting their own political agenda ahead of what is good for the country.” In other polls, congressional Republicans lag 10 points behind their Democratic peers and 20 points behind the president. Gallup finds that Republican party favorability has dropped to a new low.
There is no question that Boehner has an extraordinarily difficult job, one that few people probably want. (Maybe that’s why Lindsey Graham is so worried about him losing it.) But to repair its reputation, the Republican party is going to need a leader willing to stand up to the extreme wing of its party, force people to choose sides and resist the party’s base. Moreover, it needs someone with the kind of long-term vision currently missing from that side of the aisle. While the president has been playing a long game, focused on preventing what might as well be described as a challenge to our legislative system, Republican leaders have generally been focused on short-term wins. Trying to defeat an unpopular piece of legislation by leveraging an impasse, however, is a reaction not a strategy—and from that position, they set themselves up to lose from the start.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.