Congress has become so unproductive as of late that Americans could be forgiven for not noticing the difference, but Tuesday was officially the 114th U.S. Congress’s opening day (which, fittingly, is Mike Allen’s favorite time of every-other year). And although the fightin’ 114th is technically a more diverse Congress than any before it, the vast majority of the men and women — but mostly men — who will run the legislative branch for the next two years will be the same folks who recently helped bring the public’s faith in their federal government to unprecedented new lows. Granted, there are some differences: no more Michele Bachmann, no more Eric Cantor and, of course, a Senate that, for the first time since 2006, will be controlled by the Republicans.
Yet even though most of the media and public attention has been focused on the Senate, there are some new GOP faces in the House of Representatives, too. Most of these more than a dozen new congresspersons, we’re told, are not Tea Partiers; relatively speaking, they come from the GOP’s “pragmatic” wing. And because of this supposed influx of sanity (again, relatively speaking) into the House Republican caucus, some people, like Sen. John McCain, have argued that Speaker of the House John Boehner will have an easier time controlling his restive Tea Party bloc during the next two years than he did throughout the previous four. And I can only guess that this potential new cachet is the reason why Politico’s Glenn Thrush decided to write a lengthy new profile of the speaker, just in case he breaks from recent tradition and becomes truly relevant.
As you can probably tell from my phrasing, I didn’t find the Boehner profile to be particularly enlightening or intriguing — at least not on its own terms. That is not Thrush’s fault but rather a consequence of Boehner being so easy to understand; he’s an old-fashioned, favor-trading professional politician who’s been awkwardly placed by time and circumstance at the head of an increasingly ideological and anti-politician caucus. But even if the piece doesn’t offer us much more insight into what makes Boehner tick (cigarettes and alcohol), it does feature a genuinely newsy revelation that is laughable, predictable and symbolically telling in equal measure. Namely, Boehner’s claim that he’d like to use his new power to strike a deal with President Obama to cut social insurance spending and raise taxes. Yes, believe it or not, we are once again talking about a grand bargain.
For most anyone who’s been paying attention to U.S. politics during the last six years, the idea that Boehner and Obama will be able to achieve now what they couldn’t in 2011 — when the president was reeling from his party’s 2010 shellacking and desperate to cover his right flank, and when fiscal projections were considerably more dire than they are today — lies somewhere in the valley between delusion and the absurd. Nevertheless, according to Thrush, “the idea of a Boehner-Obama bargain late in the game is no idle fantasy” because “[Boehner’s] relationship with the White House is sturdy enough to accommodate a big deal on taxes, entitlements and government spending, trade and immigration.” The rest of the world may exude what Thrush calls “negativity” about the prospect of a deal, but neither the speaker nor the president have “given up on direct negotiation.” That’s the argument for seeing a grand bargain potentially on the horizon. At the risk of stating the obvious: it’s not much.
If this spiel was coming from the usual purveyors of fuzzyheaded centrism, it’d be more silly than strange. What makes it bizarre, though, is the source. Say what you will about John Boehner (and you could say a lot) but even his most ardent critics will acknowledge that when it comes to staying alive and climbing the ladder in D.C., he’s no fool. He knows how to play this game; and as his failed attempt to thwart the 2013 government shutdown made clear, he can recognize a bad bet when he sees it. Put simply, while I’ve no doubt that Boehner wants to secure a grand bargain (his protestations of not caring about his legacy, and the grand bargain’s fundamental plutocratic shittiness notwithstanding), I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that he seriously thinks such a thing could be done. There’s got to be another explanation.
Well, I can’t claim to have a special window into the inner workings of the speaker’s mind, but I do have a guess. Before its section on the hypothetical grand bargain, Thrush’s piece notes that Boehner should be more secure in his speakership than ever not just because his majority grew, but because it did so in no small part thanks to his tireless fundraising (he reportedly pulled in $100 million for the GOP). Indeed, if there’s any single consistent feature of Boehner’s career, it’s his skill at getting the 1 percent to open their wallets. And if there’s any consistent principle, it’s the belief that America’s wealthy should keep as much of their money as possible — except, obviously, what gets donated to him. As the journalist Lee Fang once noted, Boehner has many buddies in the lobbyist class. And as opinion polls and the so-called GOP civil war have shown, the 1 percent cares very much about striking a grand bargain and is very tired of Tea Party-inspired disorder.
Here’s what I think is really going on in this Boehner profile and within the GOP leadership more generally: Boehner and company are fully aware that the chances of them doing “big things” between now and January of 2017 are slim-to-none. At the same time, they know that they’ll only be able to enact major policy changes if a Republican wins the next White House race and if the GOP maintains control over both the House and the Senate. And, crucially, they know that they won’t be able to do any of those things unless they continue to benefit from the 1 percent’s unprecedented political largesse. So what other option does that leave them than to humor the business class’s desire for a grand bargain and immigration reform while keeping those fundraising pitches coming?
In an earlier time, before inequality reshaped American politics so dramatically, Republicans became quite adept at stringing the anti-choice crowd along with promises and token gestures. If the GOP is truly applying the same shtick to the hyper-wealthy, but substituting fiscal and immigration reform for repealing Roe v. Wade — well, considering this is the era of government of, by and for the 1 percent, it’s really quite fitting.