Ryan’s Rope and Boehner’s Blunder
At NRO this week, I made it clear that I really don’t like Paul Ryan’s budget deal. I now rush in to urge everybody, on all sides on the right, not to over-react. This admonition applies to Speaker John Boehner, too.
Background: While I haven’t always thought Boehner has strategized brilliantly or played his tactical cards wisely, I also think conservatives have frequently gone way overboard in portraying him as some sort of outrageous sellout, “squish,” or (in some cases) flat-out enemy. The man has very solid ratings from the American Conservative Union, and he is a far more effective, and far more conservative, Speaker than Dennis Hastert was; and in many ways he is steadier than Newt Gingrich was.
I’ve also been, over the course of many years, one of Paul Ryan’s foremost advocates, and while I have been far less happy with him this year, my prior post on him (before this deal) was far more in support than opposed.
The point is that I think both Ryan and Boehner are, or at least usually have been, trying their hardest, legitimately, to achieve conservative goals. I mostly do not question their intentions (although both are showing worrisome signs even on that front, but that’s for another day’s discussion), but I do question some of their decisions.
I also think Boehner has very good reason to feel very, very angry at the conservative groups that have portrayed him as being just this side of the devil incarnate, utterly failing to modulate their criticism to match the severity (or lack thereof) of his alleged crimes against ideological purity. It is an axiom of politics that if you treat somebody as an enemy, as the groups have treated Boehner, then eventually he actually starts seeing himself as your enemy — and treats you accordingly. (Conservatives did this to John McCain in the late 1990s, when his only apostasy was on campaign finance, taking positions that most conservatives had taken as recently as six years earlier, before George Will made opposition to McCain-like efforts a cause celebre. McCain was wrong, but he was otherwise solidly conservative and saw himself as one, until conservatives started treating him as an outright pariah — which of course, with his awful temperament, caused him to become increasingly opposed to us on all sorts of issues.)
None of which, though, excuses Boehner’s public conniption fits this week. Boehner’s job as a national leader on the right is to pull people together, not drive them apart. His job is to make it easier to unify to win elections, not to drive wedges that exacerbate cannibalism on the right. He should be trying to bring activists in, not drive them away.
And in this case, he also was wrong on substance in way overstating the case that Ryan’s deal is a win for conservatives and a move towards smaller government. Even if one accepts all of Ryan’s numbers — which, as I explained in the column linked above, are bogus numbers — the deficit reduction over ten years ($23 billion, or a paltry $2.3 billion per year) would amount to extremely small potatoes. The fact — and it is a fact — that the claimed reduction involves lots of smoke and mirrors makes the vehemence of Boehner’s claims even more out of line.
As for Ryan, I actually do think he sincerely thinks he has gotten the best deal he can. (He knows darn well, however, that he is using a lot of gimmicks to make the deal look better to conservatives than it actually is. So he’s not being fully honest — again — and he is also helping feed the impression that conservative hard-liners are unreasonable, which is a counterproductive impression for the long-term cause of good government.) But I think he was not just wrong, but asinine, in shutting out his Senate counterpart (and longtime ally) Jeff Sessions from negotiations that should have included Sessions. What happens when one shuts out Senate conservatives is that there is nobody to raise a red flag when Senate-specific issues come up that really, really make a difference for conservative governance. In this case, Ryan allowed the deal to include an absolutely horrible waiver of Senate budget rules, to the effect that, despite his staff’s pitiful claims to the contrary, really will make it easier for taxes to be raised in the future.
All in all, despite my NRO column, I do not think this deal was an absolutely horrible one; it was merely bad, not horrific, and it was a comparatively minor deal, not a major one. But, as Fred Barnes correctly wrote, we gave up a great deal when we breached the budgetary sequester — and we got precious little in return for it.
In sum (after lots of one-hand/other-hand discussion — sorry!), while conservatives are rightly angry at yet another policy defeat, and while Boehner’s intemperate remarks — in effect, a declaration of war against some of the conservative activist groups — were extraordinarily unwise, it still behooves all of us to take deep breaths and try to gain some perspective. We now do so in the knowledge that Paul Ryan is playing macro-political games that put his personal ambitions above those of the conservative movement, and that Boehner has been pushed to the verge of a McCain-like, all-out-war against the movement. These are not good developments.
Conservatives now can do two things. In the short term, we can encourage senators to join Sessions and Mitch McConnell in opposition to Ryan’s deal. It might still be defeatable. For the long run, I repeat the call I made here two months ago for a summit on the right, to try to pull people together and strategize better. We have an extraordinary opportunity in 2014 for electoral gains, in response to the debacle of ObamaCare. It would be inexcusable for continued warfare on the right to destroy that opportunity. Constructive criticism is fine. Cannibalism isn’t.