The events of the past 24 hours have been beyond bizarre. We have, in effect, been conducting a legislative thought experiment around the question, “What is the least conservative debt-ceiling bill that can pass without Democratic votes in the House?” A few minutes ago, we learned the answer. But the answer doesn’t matter.
There is exactly one question worth asking now: What is the debt-ceiling compromise that can win the support of the House, Senate and the White House? That means winning the support of Democrats as well as Republicans. That’s what every effort in every chamber should be oriented toward. Instead, Boehner has spent the past two days wasting his political capital assembling an irrelevant coalition of conservatives.
When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do. To govern is to compromise. And when you’re in charge, you have to govern.
Lately, Boehner has not been governing. After he failed to pass a conservative resolution to the debt crisis without Democratic votes, he should have begun cutting the deals and making the concessions necessary to gain Democratic votes. That, after all, is what he will ultimately have to do. It’s what all this is supposed to be leading up to.
But Boehner went in the opposite direction. He made his bill more conservative. He indulged his members in the fantasy that they wouldn’t have to make compromises. It’s as if Pelosi, facing criticism for dropping the public option, had tried to shore up her support by bringing a single-payer health-care bill to the floor. Even if that would have pleased her left wing, what good would it have done her? Her job was to prepare her members to take a vote that could lead to a successful outcome.
On Thursday, that seemed to be how Boehner understood his job, too. He would propose and pass a bill that was somewhat to the right of where the final compromise will be, but moved his members closer to where they would eventually need to be. But then he lost the vote and, I worry, lost sight of his own legislative strategy.
His new priority was to show that he could, in fact, pass something. And he succeeded. But the cost was pulling his members further from the reality of what they’ll eventually have to accept. At this point, I don’t know what Boehner’s endgame is. What scares me is that I’m not sure he does, either.