Even though I am a committed and partisan Democrat, I feel a bit sorry for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Sure, the man has his faults, but generally speaking, he strikes me as a reasonable adult who would love to make some sort of far-reaching deal with President Obama.
The problem for Boehner is that there are, by most estimates, about 40 of his 232 members that are dead set against making any kind of deal with the president or the Democrats. And without those people on board, and needing (currently, due to vacancies) 217 votes to pass anything, the only way he can get a deal done is with Democratic votes. This, of course, sets up a problem for the speaker—retaining his speakership. He can only lose, at this point, 15 Republican votes and still win a majority of the House at the next speakership election. That number will go up a little, or down a little, after the current vacancies are filled and the next general election is held in 2014, but the bottom line is this: if he gets crosswise with the Tea Party element of his caucus by bypassing them and doing a deal with the Democrats, he loses his speakership.
But there’s another problem, which is this: if this shutdown goes on or, even worse, Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling in two weeks and the economy tanks, most polling shows that the voters, correctly, will blame Republicans. That could mean, as Boehner himself has reportedly warned his caucus, Democratic control of the House in 2015, or at the least, a loss of Republican seats and a narrower majority. In either case, Boehner probably loses his speakership—definitely so if the Democrats win the House, but probably so if his party loses seats in a midterm under a Democratic president, which almost never happens. The last time that happened to Republicans, in 1998, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) was obligated to resign.
Boehner’s dilemma, in short, is that if he cuts a deal with Democrats, he probably loses his speakership; and if he doesn’t, and things get bad for the Republicans, he probably loses his speakership. It’s a real damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Maybe he can hang on if Republicans do lose seats but keep their majority, or perhaps the voters will forget all about this by next year (entirely possible, sad to say) and Republicans will increase their majority, in which case Boehner could keep his job. But those possibilities, at the moment, look unlikely.
So at this point, Speaker Boehner really has to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask himself this question: “If I’m going down one way or another, how do I want to go out?” And one hopes that he will decide it’s better to go out with some honor and dignity, and that he will work a deal with the Democrats, and a few reasonable Republicans in swing districts who are scared to death of losing their seats next year, to prevent an economic calamity. History will be far kinder to him if he sacrifices his speakership in a good cause. It would be far better to go out with his boots on than to be found, at the end, hiding under his desk, in fear of his own caucus, and going down as a coward.