Robert Costa's behind-the-scenes look at how John Boehner and Eric Cantor pulled House Republicans back from a costly and self-destructive government shutdown presents itself as a narrative of something in Washington finally going right. But it's really a detailed look at how insane the internal dynamics of House Republicans have become.
Costa identifies two strategies Boehner and Cantor employed: One was patient, delicate diplomacy with the GOP's right flank. The other was reckless, ridiculous promises they'll never be able to deliver on. Both come with huge costs.
Time is a precious — and scarce — resource. That's particularly true for someone in Boehner or Cantor's position. There's a reason all these people actually pay someone to serve as "scheduler." And in recent months, Boehner and Cantor's schedulers had to schedule a lot of time for their bosses to talk their colleagues back from the abyss.
"Due to the fragility of the bonds holding the House GOP together," Costa writes, Boehner and Cantor "labored behind the scenes, pouring cold water in careful measure on their colleagues’ boiling brinksmanship."
So that's cost number one: Time.
But time wasn't enough. Like a kid who won't go to sleep until he's convinced the monsters under his bed can't get him because there's a friendly dragon living in his closet, House Republicans demanded a series of ridiculous — and, in some cases, dangerous — promises from Boehner and Cantor.
"A key date in the leadership’s nearly month-long effort was Wednesday, July 31," Costa reports. That's when Boehner went before House Republicans and argued that trying to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government wouldn't work. But he had an idea that might:
He pulled the focus away from the tactic of using shutdown as leverage for defunding the law and argued instead for “well-placed, targeted strikes that will ultimately dissolve the Obamacare coalition,” such as the recent votes to delay the employer mandate and the individual mandate, both of which won scattered support from House Democrats. “We’ll have to stick together and communicate,” he said. “But this strategy is achievable. And it’s our best shot at actually getting rid of Obamacare.”
It might be the House GOP's best shot for actually getting rid of Obamacare. But it has no shot of actually getting rid of Obamacare. It's a bedtime story. A way for House Republicans to feel like they're doing something at a time when there's really nothing they can do. The fact that Boehner can't simply level with his members about what is and isn't possible isn't comforting.
But that's his problem. The country's problem is where the politics of this lead. After all, come September, the government will actually need to be funded. Boehner's "targeted strikes" will have failed. And Obamacare will be about to begin open enrollment. Since Boehner can't just tell House Republicans that their party needs to let go of the whole stop-Obamacare thing until they win a few more elections, what will he tell them?
Apparently, he's going to tell them to try using the debt ceiling:
Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit.
Trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock. And Boehner knows it. Republicans will effectively be going to the White House and saying, "Delay the health-care law or we will single-handedly cause an unprecedented and unnecessary global financial crisis that everyone will clearly and correctly blame on us, destroying our party for years to come."
It's not a very persuasive ransom note to send. And Boehner knows it. It's just something he's saying to talk his party down from this tree. But come October, when they climb up into that higher, more dangerous, tree, he's going to have to think of some new crazy promise to entice them down. Then, three months later, that promise will come back to bite him — and the rest of us. And eventually, someone's going to make a mistake, and Boehner won't manage to pull his people back from the brink at the last minute.
This is not a safe way to govern the country.