Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reflections on John Boehner's Resignation (Just to Show I Can Post on Modern Topics)

So, just to show that Ancient Greece has not totally distracted me from the modern world, a few notes on John Boehner's resignation, as Speaker of the House at the end of October and from Congress at the end of his term.  There is no big controversy as to why he is resigning.  His resignation was the necessary price to avoid a government shutdown until December.  Congressional Republicans were preparing for a shutdown over funding Planned Parenthood.  Boehner passed a budget that kicks the can down the road for a few months.  The only way to do so was with mostly Democratic votes.  The right wing caucus of the Republican Party said if you do that, you will have to go.  So he went.  I am not sure why Boehner decided that it was worth giving up his Speakership to postpone the shutdown for a few more months.  Most likely, he had just had all he could take and wanted to move on.

A few thoughts on the subject:

The debt ceiling.  For the life of me, I just can't get too worked up about a government shutdown.  Yes, it will be a bad thing, especially for federal employees who don't get paid, but not such a disaster.  The real disaster hasn't been much talked about -- what if we breach the debt ceiling. The last I heard, the debt ceiling ran out on March 15, 2015, but the Treasury could keep going with extraordinary measures (that are not so extraordinary any more) for a few more months.  Well, apparently the debt ceiling is still looming, but Boehner is considering raising it, with mostly Democratic votes, before he steps down.  This may be the real reason he decided to resign -- he might not be able to avoid a shutdown, but maybe he can at least avoid a default.  The Hill says that conservatives want to attach a rider, possibly "including" defunding of Planned Parenthood.  The blog Hot Air, a fair barometer of right wing viewpoints, seems to recognize the necessity of raising the debt ceiling, but wants to extract maximum concessions.

The stakes sure have changed.  The last few big showdowns were all about spending levels.  Republicans wanted massive cuts, and wanted to force over something Obama hated.  Every increase in the debt ceiling, they insisted, must be matched with an equivalent cut in spending.  A default wouldn't be so bad if it only forced adequate spending cuts.  Spending cuts and more spending cuts, massive, drastic spending cuts were all the rage.  That rage has apparently burned out.  Now the whole showdown is over funding Planned Parenthood, a minuscule portion of the federal budget. What has happened?  I don't know.  Maybe as the economy has improved, the urge to cut back just isn't as strong as it was before.  Maybe after a few showdowns, the need to raise the debt ceiling has finally been hammered home for Republicans.  Maybe Republicans are beginning to recognize that, although "spending" is always unpopular, actual cuts are even less popular and don't want to make a bunch of painful cuts with an election looming so soon.

How will it play out?  I have no idea.  The last shutdown happened to coincide with the looming debt ceiling and work against the Republicans in two ways.  First, because the two things were happening at once, they naturally became conflated in the public mind, so raising the debt ceiling did not look so bad, since it was equated with re-opening the government.  Second, the looming debt ceiling created a deadline.  The standoff had to be resolved by then, and it was.  Assuming Boehner raises the debt ceiling before he steps down, there will be no specific deadline this time, so the shutdown can go on until somebody cries uncle.  I am actually not entirely sure who that will be.

Here is the thing.  Government shutdowns are unpopular.  If the Republicans had any doubt about that, now they know for sure.  It looks somewhere between a HUGE temper tantrum and a hostage situation.  Republicans know that. The question is, who appears to be throwing a tantrum and/or holding hostages.  Republicans regularly try to blame Obama, to date without success.  Some people have theorized that the difference is structural.  Pointing out that the public sided with President Reagan against a Democratic Congress under similar circumstances, many people theorize that the public always sides with the President over Congress in cases like this.

I am not fully convinced.  I still think that substance matters.  If Republicans are shutting down government and/or threatening default in order to force highly unpopular cuts, the public will tend to side against them because their cuts are unpopular.  If Obama accuses them of taking hostages, the accusation will be credible because you would need hostages to force over such an unpopular measure.  But defunding Planned Parenthood?  I am inclined to think who is seen as taking hostages will depend on how people see the substantive issue.  And I don't have a clear sense of that.  On the one hand, Planned Parenthood provides a lot of valuable services, and a lot of people are aware of that fact.  So cutting women off from reproductive healthcare is unlikely to be popular.  On the other hand, I think Democrats are underestimating just how much the videos hurt.  It does not good to say that Planned Parenthood wasn't actually selling baby parts for profit.  That looks like an attempt to weasel out on a technicality.  The videos exposed what an abortion -- especially a late-term abortion -- really is.  Not to recognize the horror involved and find some way to incorporate that into public policy is extraordinarily tone deaf.

And just for the record, I do not want to cut women off from reproductive healthcare just because the main provider of it also does abortions.  But I am not altogether convinced that the public will see it in those terms.

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