John Boehner’s Moment of Truth

In July 2000, under immense pressure from President Clinton, the Israeli government made Yasser Arafat a remarkable offer: It would recognize a Palestinian state that included Gaza, more than 90 percent of the West Bank, and a big chunk of Jerusalem.  But Arafat, who had worked all his life to create a Palestinian nation, walked away from the deal, unwilling to face down rejectionist elements of his own movement.

Today, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is having his own Profiles in Courage moment. Congressional Republicans, through tenacity and discipline, have dragged President Obama far to the right. The White House seemed ready to give Republicans a long-term budget agreement they could only dream about when they won control of the House last fall. Not only would this fiscal plan mirror the GOP’s vision of smaller government, it would effectively force Democrats to abandon two of their most powerful political weapons–Medicare and Social Security.

All the GOP needed to do was declare victory and pop the bubbly. Yet Boehner lost his will, unwilling to face down rejectionist elements of his own party.     

Recall that Obama began debt limit negotiations by demanding a clean extension of federal borrowing authority with zero deficit reduction. He had ignored the recommendations of the chairs of his own deficit commission. And he had proposed a 2012 budget that would have added $3 trillion in red ink over the next decade.

Yet, by last week Obama had staked the full authority of his presidency on a plan that reportedly would have reduced the projected deficit by $4 trillion—with perhaps two-thirds coming from spending. He had agreed to significant cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and changes in Social Security. He had seemingly agreed to make permanent nearly all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.  And while Obama was insisting on about $1 trillion in new revenues over a decade, most would come from reducing or eliminating tax preferences rather than raising rates.

In all, Obama’s offer was far more ambitious than what his fiscal commission chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, proposed. The president would have reduced the deficit by roughly as much as the House Republicans, whose plan Democrats had ridiculed as absurd just weeks before.

And for a few hours last weekend, Boehner seemed ready to take the deal. But, in the face of stiff criticism from his own caucus, Boehner now sits mute while the hard-core anti-tax faction of the GOP speaks for the party. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who covets Boehner’s job, insists that not only must no new revenues be included in any fiscal agreement, there is, in fact, nothing to talk about as long as taxes are in the picture.  As one GOP freshman congressman told The Washington Post,   “Cantor’s just being very clear that we’re not going to get drawn into any negotiation.”

Heaven forbid that politicians should negotiate.

Boehner is in a tough spot. He has about 80 “young gun” House members who dream of the day the government loses its ability to borrow.  And he must represent the interests of GOP presidential candidates whose political fortunes might vastly improve if the Treasury defaults. Yet Boehner also seems to understand the catastrophic economic consequences if he fails to cut a deal.   

Of course, much of what we are hearing and seeing on both sides is theatrics. Still, within the next few weeks, Boehner must decide whether to try to sell a budget agreement that many fellow Republicans will consider a failure. And he may have to put his job on the line to do it.

It is worth noting that Arafat died just four years after rejecting Clinton’s plan, his capital in ruins. Israel elected a far more conservative government than it had in 2000, and chances for a solution to the Middle East mess are more distant than ever. You don’t need to be a fan of Arafat or his methods (and I am not) to learn a lesson from his failure of will: There is something to be said for taking yes for an answer.