When House Speaker John Boehner spoke Sunday on “Meet the Press” against a temporary two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, I thought it was a shrewd posture: Give some rhetoric to his right wing by saying that only a full-year extension makes sense while figuring out a way to get the temporary extension passed. I still have a feeling that’s where House Republicans will end up. But clearly I overestimated the rationality of the House GOP, not a sin I habitually commit. Boehner, having at least tacitly agreed to the deal for a temporary extension negotiated by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, had to retreat in the face of an onslaught by his most conservative members. Everyone now knows what they should have known all along: Boehner can never again be counted on to make a deal that will stick with his caucus. He has become a leader in name only. That’s too bad because at heart, he’s probably more reasonable than his red-hot colleagues. But it is what it is.
I have always been fond of John F. Kennedy’s line — he spoke it about Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign — that when the Wall Street Journal’s loyally conservative editorial page criticizes a Republican, that is akin to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, criticizing the pope. On Wednesday, the Journal was absolutely scathing in going after Republican leaders for “opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double-play.”
Indeed, the House GOP has no standing for its current position because many in the House leadership originally expressed skepticism about the tax holiday. How can they go from suggesting the payroll tax holiday is a bad idea to being the champions of the president’s view that a one-year extension is absolutely necessary? If they actually contrived to look as political — in the narrow and unattractive sense — as possible, they couldn’t have done better than this. Maybe the Journal underestimates the GOP leadership: It may have hit into a triple play.
The Journal’s editorial page wisely counsels Republicans “to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll tax quickly.” But how? With the Journal’s backing, perhaps Boehner can now persuade his colleagues what he tried to convince them of in the first place: Let this holiday go through, with mostly Democratic votes if necessary, and then pledge to fight hard in two months for — well, for whatever the right wing of his caucus tells him to. Maybe Obama can ease the way by promising negotiations in January, which wouldn’t change anything but could be a fig leaf. The one thing Obama cannot do is yield and make new substantive concessions now. This would undermine the very image of strength he has been building since September, after the debt-ceiling fiasco, which weakened the Republicans but also weakened him. He’s come back in the polls by standing up to the GOP right. If even the Wall Street Journal editorial page concedes that the Democrats occupy the political high ground, maybe even the most skittish in the GOP’s ranks will start believing it.