Ross Douthat of the New York Times published a lengthy response yesterday to my piece criticizing House Speaker John Boehner’s negotiating acumen and calling on top House GOP leadership to resign. Douthat’s thesis is that while Boehner clearly bears some blame for the shutdown snafu, the real problem is not poor leadership, but poor followership. While I largely agree with his conclusion — Boehner is not the only problem — I think Douthat misunderstands Boehner’s options pre-shutdown and the rationale behind Boehner’s decision-making throughout the process.
I think this excerpt captures the bulk of Douthat’s argument:
If this kind of situation presented itself in the business world — a corporation trying to negotiate a deal with its board divided against itself, unable to agree on what to seek or what to give up in return — I suspect that what would happen is that the negotiations would collapse, the deal would die, and the parties involved would move on to other things. But legislators don’t have that option. In divided government, there has to be some sort of deal, even if that deal is just to keep continuing existing policies as they are.
Which is what we ended up ultimately doing! But first something else happened: Boehner’s members, his stakeholders, essentially demanded that he go out and do the impossible — seek a deal that satisfied their conflicting, often-impossible walkaway values while honoring their unwillingness to offer much of anything in return, and do so in the context of a government shutdown (rather than, say, a very short continuing resolution) that every sane observer understood would probably weaken the party’s negotiating position overall.
This was the methodless madness of the last few weeks: Not the fact that individual House members had rational reasons not to want a deal, not the fact that the Republican caucus encompasses conflicting interests that make dealmaking difficult … but the fact that against that backdrop, enough of the stakeholders involved either actually believed that they could achieve the impossible or felt compelled to pretend that they believed it, which in turn led to a House majority acting against its collective political self-interest in pursuit of an unattainable goal.
Douthat concludes that a better analogy for Boehner and his members than the one I originally described — a deal-making executive with no clue what his bosses actually wanted out of a deal — is actually a CEO working for a board divided against itself. I don’t think this analogy works, for reasons I’ll explain below, but even if I grant that Douthat’s analogy is better, it hardly excuses Boehner’s poor decision-making throughout the process.
A CEO stuck with an indecisive board that doesn’t know what it wants has three courses of action: 1) even though the CEO knows that no board consensus exists, he tries, and eventually fails, to make everybody on the board happy (this is essentially Douthat’s defense of Boehner), 2) the CEO ignores the board and does what he thinks is best for the company, potentially leading to his firing for insubordination regardless of the outcome, or 3) the CEO resigns from the outset, knowing there is nothing he can do to fix the situation given the indecisiveness and conflicting desires of the board which employs him.
From my vantage point, a true leader doing what he thought was best for the company would have chosen option 2 or 3. An individual focused more on his own job security, and less on making the best long-term decisions for the company, would have chosen option 1. Defending Boehner on the basis that he chose option 1 is hardly exculpatory. In fact, it tends to support my original thesis — namely, that Boehner and his top leadership team should resign for failure of leadership.
With all that said, I don’t think Douthat’s analogy fits based on what we know about the events leading up to the shutdown and its eventual resolution. In order to buy the hapless CEO/divided board scenario, you have to believe three things to be true: A) that Boehner knew precisely what each faction wanted, B) that Boehner believed the most popular option — some type of brinkmanship — would be disastrous, and C) that Boehner had no choice but to exercise the most popular (and most disastrous) option.
The first prerequisite — that Boehner had a perfect read on the temperature of his caucus (A) — is simply not supported by the facts. Take, for example, the following reporting from Robert Costa towards the end of the shutdown:
Sources in room say it's open mic now, and because Boehner is moving a more conservative bill and not waiting for Sen, there's no revolt
— Robert Costa (@costareports) October 15, 2013
House leadership sources download following mtg: this bill will pass, may get some Ds, but shld pass, whip will be informal but encrgd
— Robert Costa (@costareports) October 15, 2013
“The votes aren’t there,” says a leadership aide. “We’ve been unable to get people around this strategy.” http://t.co/J0bxx4fxX6
— Robert Costa (@costareports) October 15, 2013
In the span of only eight hours, the leadership staff who regularly leaked to Costa went from being completely confident in their proposal’s passage, to being resigned to its failure. Those leaks, and the massive gap between what they promised and what they delivered, are hardly indicative of a leadership team with a finger on the pulse of its rank-and-file members. Strike one for Douthat’s defense of Boehner.
Next, for Douthat’s defense to work, we must also believe that Boehner knew brinkmanship would ultimately fail (B). This defense makes sense until you consider the original House GOP leadership plan: rather than forcing a shutdown over CR negotiation in the hopes of eventually defunding Obamacare, GOP leadership wanted to push the government to the brink of default in the hopes of eventually forcing an Obamacare delay.
Is there anyone on earth who thinks pushing the federal government to the brink of default would somehow have been less risky than forcing a short-term government shutdown?
I find it very difficult to square the argument that the same GOP leadership team that pushed the default/delay plan was somehow convinced from the outset that any and all brinkmanship would fail. To my mind, the only way to square that argument is to assume that Boehner and his team never actually intended to execute their default/delay plan — that the entire goal of their plan was to lure conservatives away from a shutdown with the promise of brinkmanship over default, only to then surrender on the debt limit as soon as a shutdown was no longer a possibility. Again, if that were the case, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of the leadership qualities of Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy. Regardless, the GOP conference didn’t trust its leaders enough to sign on to that recommendation. Strike two for Douthat’s defense of Boehner.
Finally, for Douthat’s defense to work, we must believe that Boehner had no choice, due to the demands of either a majority or a loud minority of his conference, but to force a shutdown, only to slowly and unilaterally concede his way to surrender (C). Again, the facts of the situation, and especially the final vote total of the final debt limit/CR deal, require us to reject this defense. Why? Because the final deal passed without the support of a majority of House Republicans (the final deal was rejected by more than 60 percent of House Republicans). Douthat actually concedes this point in his article:
In divided government, there has to be some sort of deal, even if that deal is just to keep continuing existing policies as they are.
Which is what we ended up ultimately doing!
Douthat basically argues that Boehner had to go through the whole messy process in order to get his conference to the point that it would surrender. But even at the very end, that’s not what actually happened! If the final post-shutdown deal passed without a majority of Republicans supporting it, then why could that very same deal not have happened prior to the shutdown? Boehner very clearly could have passed at the outset a clean CR and a clean debt limit hike. It wouldn’t have received the support of the majority of Boehner’s conference, but it would have passed. Boehner had plenty of pre-shutdown options that would’ve eliminated the political damage from a shutdown or default; he just refused to exercise them. Could those options have potentially cost him his job? Absolutely. But those options were there for the taking. Strike three for Douthat’s defense of Boehner.
My original argument calling for the resignation of Boehner and his top leadership team was based on two beliefs: 1) due to his consistent and numerous negotiating errors, Boehner was no longer viewed as a credible adversary by Obama or Reid, and 2) he and his team were no longer capable of moving the GOP conference where they wanted it to go.
While I do agree with Douthat that the GOP’s problems are much bigger than just the leadership foibles of John Boehner, I don’t think his defense of Boehner holds water. Furthermore, for the reasons I detailed above, granting Douthat’s premises about the true nature of the problem doesn’t weaken the case against Boehner. Instead, it actually strengthens the case for the resignation of Boehner and his top leadership team. Leaders lead; they don’t blame their followers for their leadership failures.