House Speaker John Boehner has struggled for weeks to unite his fellow Republicans around a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. Having failed to find a package of tax increases and spending cuts acceptable to the Obama administration and the House GOP, he pivoted to a politically shrewd “Plan B” that would have extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts except for the high-income rate reductions that applied to income above a $1 million threshold. But as Boehner and his lieutenants worked to rally support, they found that they didn’t have the votes to pass “Plan B.” And so Boehner has suffered what is widely regarded as a humiliating defeat, one that has left many observers wondering whether he can survive for long as speaker.
Whether or not Boehner manages to regain his standing with House Republicans, his defeat raises a number of more significant questions about where Republicans should go from here.
Until the next presidential election, Boehner and the House Republicans are the face of the GOP. There are, to be sure, a number of talented Republican governors, yet most of them are either deeply engaged with issues close to home or too obscure or low-wattage to have much of a national impact. All but a handful of House Republicans represent constituencies with substantial Republican majorities, thanks in no small part to the influence of Republican state legislators in drawing district boundaries. The GOP is thus likely to hold the House for years to come, even if Hillary Clinton wins the White House come 2016. Like it or not, conservatives need the House GOP to get its act together sooner rather than later. But how?
The first question is whether Republicans are right to oppose President Barack Obama at every turn. Very early in 2009, a number of House Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, were resigned to the notion that they would have to cooperate with President Obama given the size of his mandate. But the fight over the fiscal stimulus law stiffened the resolve of conservatives, who were convinced that the president had failed to argue in good faith. The president’s allies see this differently, of course. Many on the left believe that the House GOP was intransigent from the start. Another view, however, is that if the Obama administration had embraced substantial increases in defense procurement as part of the stimulus law, a large number of Republicans would have defected, giving the president a significant bipartisan victory. Regardless, distrust between the House GOP and the Obama White House ran deep, and it was exacerbated by the growing assertiveness of grassroots conservative activists and the debate over health system reform.
The expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts might represent an opportunity for a reset. One of the virtues of “Plan B” is that it was identical to a proposal that had been advanced by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) last year, and so it could be characterized as bipartisan in inspiration. Moreover, it represented a concession to the political reality that a large majority of American voters favor tax increases on high-earners. But as Boehner’s GOP opponents understood, “Plan B” also represented an implicit endorsement of a tax increase. Expiration effectively means that Republicans can start with a clean slate, albeit at a higher tax rate.