House Speaker John Boehner is in a pickle. If he moves to the right on the continuing resolution to temporarily fund the government, he loses the Senate. If he moves to the left, he loses his own Republicans. And if he just stands there, the government gets shut down -- and polls suggest the public will blame Boehner and the Republicans. In late February, the Washington Post/ABC poll found that 35 percent of Americans would blame President Obama for a shutdown and 36 percent would blame the Republicans. On March 13, the same question in the same poll found that 45 percent would blame the Republicans and 31 percent would blame Obama. A one-point gap against the Republicans has turned into a 14-point gap over the past few weeks. So that’s where Boehner is: He loses if he goes right, if he goes left and if he stands still.
But what can Boehner do? Last night, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell described the situation in the House as a “three-party system”: There are the Democrats, the Republicans and the tea party. He’s right. If it were up to just Boehner and the Democrats, it’d be pretty easy to cut a deal. But it’s not. It’s up to Boehner and the Republicans and the tea party Republicans. But Boehner also can’t abandon the tea party Republicans to secure Democratic votes; he’d be handing the gavel to Speaker Eric Cantor within a year. If there’s anything that the Republican establishment has learned in recent years, it’s that you do not disappoint the tea party.
A senior Treasury official recently told me that “there’s a possibility you need to have a shutdown to lower expectations on both sides.” In other words, getting Congress to an equilibrium where its members are able to cut deals might require letting both parties find out what happens when you don’t cut a deal. And to offer an example of how much my expectations have been lowered, perhaps it’d be good if that happened now rather than in two months. A temporary shutdown of the government is a waste of money and bad for the economy. But it’s not nearly the catastrophe that defaulting on the national debt would be. If we need to leap into the abyss, better to do it in the hole we know how to get out of rather than the hole we don’t.