House Speaker John Boehner has perhaps the most difficult job in American politics. Despite having relatively little control over whether a piece of legislation passes — considering the power of senators, the president, and his fellow House members — he often takes much of the blame when bills are defeated. Liberals blame him for being too stubborn to yield to what they view as their electoral mandate. Conservatives blame him for being too willing to compromise.
But neither side is right. Indeed, when a political leader faces criticism from both sides of the aisle, it’s usually evidence that he’s an effective leader who takes political risks. That’s certainly true here.
In the recent fiscal-cliff negotiations, Boehner was the only major player who took a real political risk. President Barack Obama enjoyed the support of an electorate eager to raise taxes on those Americans already shouldering a vastly disproportionate share of the tax burden. He knew well that if Congress failed to raise taxes and the economy tanked, most voters would blame Speaker Boehner and the Republican Congress. The conservatives who opposed Boehner’s compromises also had little on the line. Most of them hail from deeply Republican districts and aren’t politically vulnerable. But Boehner put his reputation — even his very job — on the line by compromising with Obama. In the process, he helped America avert an economic catastrophe.
Boehner has a lot in common with one of his predecessors, Tip O’Neill. A Massachusetts Democrat, O’Neill was the speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987. He was a consensus-seeker who often negotiated with President Ronald Reagan to reach compromises that put country first and politics second. The problem for Boehner is that Obama is nothing like Reagan. In Reagan, O’Neill had a negotiating partner who was willing to take risks. Obama views every crisis as a new opportunity to gain a political advantage, frequently forcing Boehner to negotiate with himself.
Boehner at least puts his country ahead of his ego. During the fiscal-cliff negotiations, he displayed a willingness to do what few other leaders dared to — take a risk. For that, Republicans should be proud.
Ken Nahigian is the general counsel and director of public policy for Nahigian Strategies, a communications strategy and public policy firm, and served previously as counsel to Senate Commerce Committee Chairmen John McCain and Ted Stevens.