The fact that Boehner supported TARP and No Child Left Behind and mega-handouts to the pharmaceutical industry and a range of other federal subsidies is hardly surprising, for this is what mainstream Washington politicians of both parties do — they take great buttloads of money from giant transnational companies, play golf with the CEOs of those same companies ("If someone I've gotten to know on the golf course comes into my office with a good argument," Boehner once said, "I tend to want to listen"), and deliver taxpayer money back to their buddies when the need arises, or sometimes even when the need doesn't arise. In this regard, Boehner has had a lot more in common with campaign-contribution-devouring Democrats like Chris Dodd and Harry Reid than he has with the Tea Party Republican voters he now ostensibly represents.
Boehner, in short, has for most of his career been a Bush Republican, i.e., a corporate schmoozer and a remorseless spender of taxpayer money for whom the notion of small government is just something to say when the cameras are on, or when the public money in question might go to poor people or immigrants or other such unlikely golfers. This was a fine way to be during the 2000s, back when America was still unfucked enough to enjoy a phony real estate boom and launch recreational wars of conquest in the Middle East — but in this new decade, post-Bush and post-crash, there is serious doubt on the Hill that a reflexive favor-churner like Boehner will be able to keep delivering Republican votes to lavish taxpayer money on his industry pals. Money is simply too tight now, and people are too pissed off.
Getting Republicans to line up for the permanent extension of Bush tax cuts is one thing — GOP congressmen will never have a problem slashing taxes for the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons of the world. But there are TARP-like votes ahead that will prove to be the real indicators of whether or not Boehner leads the Republican caucus, or whether the caucus will end up leading him. Sometime in the spring, for instance, the Republicans will likely be forced to choose between raising the debt ceiling or shutting down the government. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling was an explicit campaign issue for many Tea Party-backed candidates, and in the wake of the election, several prominent Republicans, including dingbat party chief Michael Steele, have vowed to oppose any move to raise the debt limit next year.
"It's going to be really interesting to watch," says one Democratic aide. "Is Boehner going to let the Tea Party shut the government down?"
Boehner, somewhat predictably, has indicated an unwillingness to do so. Reflecting the sentiment of veterans in both parties, he calls raising the debt ceiling a procedural no-brainer, something that simply has to be done. After all, the modus operandi for Bush Republicans like Boehner has always been to talk a good game on spending cuts, so long as the cuts were coming out of the food-stamp program or aid to Katrina victims — but they would never go so far, or be so radical, as to cut overall spending, which would require scaling back the industry handouts they have spent so much time putting together on the golf courses of America. The Republican attitude toward spending during the Bush years was probably best summarized by Alaska congressman Don Young, author of the infamous $223 million "bridge to nowhere" earmark, who scoffed at the idea that spending for Katrina should be paid for by cuts to his transportation pork programs. Proponents of such offsets, Young said, could "kiss my ear."
So one can imagine how Boehner, who has funneled billions to big business over the years, would respond to the idea of shutting the government down. "Whether we like it or not," the new speaker-in-waiting told reporters right after the election, "the federal government has obligations. We're going to have to deal with it as adults."
This may in fact be a rare instance of Boehner being right. After all, the best way to reduce spending is probably to cut down on future obligations, rather than simply to default on the old ones you already passed. But in this case, the speaker has the misfortune of coming from a state with a highly organized and politically aware Tea Party that has absolutely no interest in being lectured about what's "adult" and what isn't.
"They're all worried the government would shut down," says Littleton, the head of the Ohio Liberty Council. "I don't care if it shuts down! So what?" Whether the Republican establishment led by Boehner can keep the support and approval of Tea Party leaders like Littleton over the next year or so is, right now, the most fascinating story line in all of American politics. The whole system of entrenched Beltway hackdom that Boehner represents is at stake. The GOP leadership largely succeeded this past fall in appropriating the political energy of the Tea Party for its own ends, pulling off a brilliant coup by using Tea Party rage to push through the long sought-after extension of the obscene Bush tax cuts. This was always going to be the model of how Republican Party hacks would deal with the Tea Party: Bash the living hell out of hated blue-state Gorgons like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, jack off the mob by incorporating the Tea Party's Constitution-and-liberty rhetoric, hand the Tea Party those reforms that the GOP's big campaign contributors want anyway (most notably, tax breaks for the rich and deregulation of big business), and then cough up a note from the doctor or some other lame excuse when the time comes to actually cut spending.
Of all the longtime Republican Beltway hacks who are now scrambling to find ways to throw enough sunshine on the Tea Party mob to keep their jobs, Boehner has been the most hilariously transparent. In yet another scene straight out of a screwball comedy — maybe it was an early hommage to the now-departed Leslie Nielsen — Boehner in November 2009 stood up in front of a crowd of Tea Partiers who had gathered to protest the upcoming Obamacare vote, and tried to stroke his audience by holding up a copy of the Constitution. Professing his love for the sacred document, Boehner pledged to "stand here with our Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.'" The crowd was silent. Boehner had confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence.
Boehner's irrepressible hackosity is a serious problem for the Republican establishment, which desperately needs a more convincing con man to stave off voter anger on the right. In this regard, the contrast between Boehner and Littleton, the Tea Party leader in Boehner's home state, is interesting. The two men live in the same place, the small township of West Chester near Cincinnati, so Littleton is very familiar with Boehner. But Littleton's opinion of the Republican establishment couldn't be lower: It was precisely programs like the Medicare drug benefit bill and No Child Left Behind, programs he considers unacceptably wasteful and intrusive, that moved him to get into politics. "These were all Republican programs," Littleton says. "If you look at Republican congressmen from Ohio, they all voted for this stuff."
What's interesting is that the survival of the hack political class that Boehner represents now depends almost entirely on their ability to neutralize grass-roots leaders like Littleton — and the word "leader" here is used in the real sense of the word. While Boehner often negotiates for a Republican delegation that winds up rejecting the compromises he reaches, Littleton, when I speak with him, strikes me in exactly the opposite way — I feel very aware that I am talking to someone with a lot of political power, who represents quite a lot of actual human beings.
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