Boehner's tough talk will save his hide

Speaker John Boehner is trapped between doing the right thing and saying the things the Right wants to hear. His bravado might be enough to keep the Tea Party wolves at bay.

Turning tables on President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner went out of his way over the weekend to rebut claims he is poised to cave on raising the debt ceiling: "The president is risking default by not having a conversation with us," he told America's ABC News on Sunday. The Ohio Republican sounded equally defiant on the ongoing budget stand-off, continuing to insist on concessions from the White House on Obamacare, boasting "the fight was going to come one way or the other – we're in the fight".

This could be the storm before the calm. Countless Republican sources are telling innumerable reporters that Boehner is saying privately he won't allow the US government to default on its debt obligations but, as I wrote yesterday, Boehner can't afford to reveal weakness, at least not yet (The safety restraint in Washington’s shutdown, October 7). He must extract something – anything – from this torturous process (removing the tax on medical devices, a revenue measure within Obamacare, and recalculating Medicare and Social Security CPI adjustments seem the most likely candidates). 

Boehner's renewed bravado will unnerve some, but the politics are clear: folding now is the worst of all worlds. It would embolden enemies to his left and right, sending exhilarated Democrats and enraged Tea Party Republicans off on a furious sprint to the nearest microphone. Instead, the best of a bad menu of available options for the Speaker is to hold out as long as possible, concede eventually (with a minor concession or two), and blame his predicament on the president's reckless willingness to risk default. It is an audacious manoeuvre, akin to blaming a face for colliding with a fist, and will earn justified opprobrium among most observers. But – and this is Boehner's hope – 'blame Obama' messages, however flimsy, tend to resonate powerfully in conservative media circles, his most critical audience.

GOP leaders couldn't care less how many New York Times editorials, CNN talking heads or late night comedians tear strips off them; in a highly disaggregated media market, conservative voters are tuned in to a different frequency altogether, one dominated by the likes of Fox News, shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report. Boehner has never been beloved by this crowd, but he can't risk their outright enmity. The Speaker is therefore trapped between doing the right thing and saying the things the Right wants to hear. That explains his hard line in public, and we can expect more of the same.

But the risk to the GOP of forcing default remains too great for an essentially pragmatic politician like Boehner. He understands that whomever is blamed for such a spectacular act of economic vandalism will be deemed unfit to govern by the great midriff of the American electorate for several election cycles to come.

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin