A few years ago, I took a trip home to Central Illinois. My trip coincided with the county fair, always a highlight of the local social season. The main event at the fair that year was a concert headlined by Head East, a band hailing from the area and still trading off a hit song from 1976.
That night I met up with friends at the fair’s beer tent, all of whom had been there a while, and after a few more beers we wandered towards the stage in time for the headliner. As soon as the show commenced, my inebriated friends began requesting — loudly and obnoxiously — Head East’s lone hit song, “There’s Never Been Any Reason,” to the visible annoyance of the band — as well as their bouncers, two beefy-looking biker-types.
After a couple of songs, my drunken friend Ken pitched a plan to an even drunker Willie: As soon as they heard the first chords to their hit song, they would rush the stage. Willie would occupy the bouncers while Ken jumped onto the stage, tackled the bassist, picked up his ax and finished the song. It was an obviously terrible idea that I couldn’t wait to see play out.
Near the end of the show, the familiar (to us, at least) chords of “There’s Never Been Any Reason” began to waft through the speakers and my friends dashed towards the stage. Willie was immediately met by the bouncers, who quickly (and brutally) deterred him from his mission. Ken, trailing behind by a safe distance, observed the scene and quickly bailed out. Eventually, Ken and Willie found their ways back to the group. They were both angry: Willie blamed Ken for hatching the plan as well as for abandoning him, while Ken was indignant that Willie had failed at his assigned task, dashing Ken’s dreams. Ken remains aggrieved to this day.
I submit that the relationship between John Boehner and President Obama mirrors that of my friends. Several sources have indicated that the president now lacks respect for and confidence in the speaker because Boehner didn’t follow through after they privately agreed to a debt-reduction deal much larger than the $2.3 billion target, one that allegedly included reductions in entitlement spending as well as revenue increases. The president reasoned that if he was willing to take the heat from his constituencies for agreeing to entitlement reforms, then Boehner should have been willing to do the same on the tax front and put it up for a vote.
The problem with this indignation is that Boehner did follow through on his end of the bargain by presenting the deal to the Republican Conference, which promptly became apoplectic and began discussing whether to depose Boehner. There was never any question of it getting through the House of Representatives — even if House Democrats had lined up behind it, which they would never have done. The president certainly was in no position to guarantee those votes.
But had the speaker sacrificed his career and somehow, by dint of superhuman political effort, put together a coalition of 218 votes to pass the grand debt-reduction plan, it would have then gone to the Senate, where Harry Reid would have most certainly defeated it, based on his complete hostility to touching entitlements. Few Senate Democrats seemed prepared to vote for it either.
So what exactly did the president risk? Nada. He let Boehner go first and suffer the wrath of the Republican Conference while he remained unscathed, since the grand bargain remains unknown, vague and — since it never saw the light of day — forgotten by most of the voters and special-interest groups that comprise the Democratic Party.
For the president to send his press secretary out and accuse Boehner of political cowardice or treachery goes beyond being a gross distortion of what actually transpired: It dramatically undercuts Obama’s ability to reach future deals with Boehner, who’s going to be as irritated — and with as much reason — as my friend Willie. It is also a politically daft move, making future negotiations all the more difficult for him.
While Boehner may have respectfully greeted the president’s speech Thursday with a cautious note, that was solely because it made political sense for Boehner himself at the time and nothing else. And I suspect that as long as the two are both in office, the president can expect nothing else from the speaker, given the amateurish, unproductive stabbing he gave him in the press.
Ike Brannon is the director of economic policy at the American Action Forum.