July 26, 2013

Here’s what you need to know about the budget and debt limit showdown that may or may not shut down (or even default) the government this fall. For all the talk about how John Boehner is losing control over his caucus, he has been here before. And so far — again and again — he’s managed to avoid a replay of the 1995-1996 shutdown fiasco.

Remember, Boehner was there in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole went through their fight with Bill Clinton. He saw Gingrich’s defeat, and its political consequences for the GOP. That time, Republicans were if anything even more full of confidence that they had the nation behind them at the beginning of the fight, only to see Clinton easily master the situation.

That fight was soon after a Republican landslide, and pitted them against a weakened president. Compare that to the showdown that’s coming, which will be a year after an election in which Barack Obama won and gained seats in both chambers of Congress. Boehner knows that he’s not going to get everything the Crazy Caucus demands (the defunding of Obamacare; balancing the budget in 10 years or whatever it is Republicans are demanding). And he doesn’t want to risk disaster for his party by going over the cliff this time when he didn’t do so in 2011, before the election, when Obama was weakened.

It won’t be easy to avoid. Boehner is going to have to round up the votes to make it happen, and that’s always tricky when many of the sane mainstream conservatives who make up the bulk of his conference are far more terrified of a primary challenge than they are of a general election defeat.

Most likely, however, talk about huge Republican victories in this showdown — and demands from some Republicans to simply shut down the government, blame Obama, and “force” the end of Obamacare or whatever — are deliberately meant as public distractions from the real negotiations. And those real negotiations, about the nuts and bolts of which programs are cut and which cuts are restored, are extremely important, even if they aren’t over whether either liberal or conservative ideals will be achieved. Remember: during these negotiations, everyone is going to bluff, right up until the final deal is struck.

Sooner or later, it’s always possible that Boehner (or other players in these showdowns) might miscalculate, and wind up with an outcome that no one wants. No question but that the GOP insistence on constant brinkmanship has some dangers. But so far, Boehner has been able to reach a deal every time: the 2011 government shutdown and debt ceiling deals; the 2012/2013 fiscal cliff compromise; and even the temporarily extension of the debt limit last spring.

There’s a very good chance that a realistic deal is what he’s looking for this time, too. And he very well may get it.