BIRNBAUM: In defense of John Boehner

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Few politicians of late have been as pilloried as House Speaker John A. Boehner. He was attacked as an ideologue by Democrats and as a sellout by some Republicans. He is neither. In fact, by leading a unified Republican House, he has solidified his position in a way that has been widely underreported.

Friends of Mr. Boehner were confused by his steadfast support of the shutdown caucus in the House. He has had a reputation for being a mainstream Republican with a bias toward supporting rather than rejecting government as a means of progress. He would have been among the last people to embrace a government shutdown, especially after the debacle during the Clinton administration that helped end the career of one of his predecessors, Newt Gingrich.

That is a shortsighted view. The speaker clearly made a strategic choice. A shutdown was the price he had to pay to place himself in the good graces of the resurgent right wing of his party. He paid the price so that he did not have to take the next, far more dangerous step — putting the government in danger of default. A temporary shutdown of government is one thing. A U.S.-caused collapse of international financial markets is another entirely.

Mr. Boehner knew this, and he acted accordingly. He could not stand firm against everything his young bucks demanded and still retain the respect he needed to lead, so he chose the lesser evil. Clearly, his decision paid off. The shutdown was a mess, but it was not the debacle a debt default would have been.

The political atmosphere has changed significantly in the meantime. There’s no more talk of a coup against the speaker. He is, in fact, much stronger than he was before the shutdown. What’s more, the blowback from the shutdown has chastened Republicans. The chance of a repeat anytime soon is approaching zero, which surely must secretly please the speaker. A debt default remains completely off the table.

Mr. Boehner has added to his political capital. He has wiggle room with his Republican colleagues. He has earned their trust and support and now has leeway to do what he thinks is right. There’s a limit to that flexibility, of course, but the direction he chooses to go in is more than ever the direction House Republicans are likely to go.

That’s a new and promising development. Those who doubt there’s even a possibility of a major deal on the budget are probably correct. If Mr. Boehner tries again to advance one, though, it might actually have a shot. Certainly, the prospects for tax reform would improve significantly if Mr. Boehner gave it his blessing.

Indeed, the speaker, who looked for a long time like the biggest loser in Washington, has managed through adversity to come out a winner. Keeping faith with his insurgent wing has given him a real power base from which to work.

The question is: What will he do with his new-found authority?

Even a revived speaker can’t muster enough support for a broad immigration bill. He probably knows such legislation is in the long-term interest of his party, but the Democrats’ approach and his own are so disparate that the two can never be reconciled — at least not during this election cycle.

A far more probable avenue for compromise is the budget conference that was mandated in the wake of the shutdown. If not a grand bargain, then maybe a granular bargain is possible. One option: reconfiguring the automatic cuts called sequestration so they don’t hit so randomly. Another option: finally devising a start to entitlement reform. That would be fundamental to correcting the federal budget’s chronic imbalance.

No one could be blamed for thinking that nothing will ever get done in Washington, owing to all the backbiting and partisanship that festers there. But one little-told reason that something important might actually happen is the return to power of John A. Boehner.

Jeffrey Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Times, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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