The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The strange alliance between John Boehner and liberals

Has the news that President Obama will include significant entitlement cuts in his budget thawed relations in Washington? Not so much.

"If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there's no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes," said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement today. "That’s no way to lead and move the country forward."

As Greg Sargent notes, just a few months ago, top Republicans were saying that this was, indeed, the exact way to move the country forward. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Wall Street Journal that "higher Medicare premiums for the wealthy, an increase in the Medicare eligibility age and slowing cost-of-living increases for Social Security" were "the kinds of things that would get Republicans interested in new revenue.” A Republican congressional aide told Bloomberg that chained-CPI — which is included in Obama's budget — was Boehner's top priority.

"And so we have a moment of clarity in this debate once again," writes Sargent. "There is literally nothing that Obama can offer Republicans — not even things they themselves have asked for — that would induce them to agree to a compromise on new revenues."

It would go too far to say Boehner is playing directly into the hands of the White House. But he's certainly playing directly into the hands of liberals.

There's a strain of thought in the Republican Party that believes Obama's public positions are just a ruse and he's really a hardcore, old-fashioned liberal with no interest in a budget deal and no higher political goal than the absolute destruction of the GOP.

Liberals hold the opposite concern. They worry that Obama's public positions are just his opening bid, and he's really a hardcore, '90s-style DLC Democrat who has no higher political goal than a bipartisan budget deal and would happily sign off on a bill that slashed Medicare and Social Security as long as Republicans would agree to some taxes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, liberals have a better understanding of the White House's underlying motives than Republicans. But quite surprisingly, Republicans keep saving liberals from their president.

As badly as Obama wants a budget deal, Boehner seems just as determined to keep him from reaching one. For liberals, this is close to an ideal situation. The Republican Party's brand continues to worsen. The Democratic president manages to look reasonable without ever actually signing a painful compromise into law. And Medicare and Social Security remain safe.

Consider this another way. Imagine hardcore, Social Security-loving liberals had managed to place a Manchurian candidate into the top ranks of GOP leadership. What would they have him do?

One answer would be that upon hearing the codeword "revenues," he'd tearfully confess that Republicans had it all wrong, and the country needed higher taxes and Medicare-for-all. But what would that achieve? He'd be instantly ejected from the Republican Party. His word would carry no weight. All that brainwashing would've been for nothing.

Another answer is that they'd have him cut a deal with the president. But any deal that could secure Republican votes — if indeed any deal could secure Republican votes — would require big cuts to the programs that liberals hold dear, and the cost of adding further tax increases would be a reversal of defense cuts that liberals quite like. The political advantage Democrats hold on Social Security and Medicare would also be weakened, and the GOP could run in the next election as a more moderate party willing to accept tax increases in return for entitlement cuts. Then, upon winning, they could cut taxes again.

The more strategic position would be for the Manchurian Speaker to do something akin to what Boehner is doing now: Take control of the Republican Party and use conservatives as cover for scotching plausible deals that liberals don't like in a way that weakens the brand of the Republican Party.

Boehner, of course, isn't a Manchurian speaker. He's simply the leader of a party that won't abide any further tax increases. But his party is losing elections, its brand is in tatters, and his reaction to Obama's budget will come as a great comfort to many on the left. That should give him some pause.