Posted on December 12, 2012Newt Gingrich famously compared himself to the Duke of Wellington during the Budget wars of 1995-96. Wellington fought and eventually vanquished Napoleon during the Peninsular campaign in Napoleonic Wars in the early part of the 19th Century.
John Boehner is far too humble to compare himself to the Arthur Wellesley or any other historic general.
But if he were to be so inclined, the best comparison would be to George Washington, pre-Yorktown.
My family and I took a trip to Mount Vernon over the weekend to check out the Christmas lights, and my six year old is now completely fascinated with the Father of the country. We are reading together a biography of Washington that I had when I was a kid. Biographies published back then are so much simpler than the biographies today. Much less historical ambiguity, much more historical certainty, which is what you want for a little six year old.
Any way, back to Boehner.
George Washington started out with a rag-tag army composed of some trained militiamen, some Tea Party patriots, some adventurers, some ne’er do wells, and some shop-keepers and small farmers. Sound familiar?
Boehner is trained politician. He has been at this for quite awhile, although he started as a successful businessmen. He knows how to negotiate tough terrain, after serving as a member of the Leadership in Gingrich years, after crafting bipartisan legislation as a Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and after serving as Minority leader and then Speaker. This isn’t his first rodeo.
Washington had long experience as a soldier, having served first as a leader in this initial stages of the French and Indian War, and then eventually being in charge of the Virginia militia. Washington was an expert in how to fight in the Wilderness. He wasn’t necessarily an expert in the tactics of the British Army, which proved to be worthless in fighting the French and the Indians. He learned the art of guerilla war, which was fight only when the odds were in your favor, and retreat when the odds were against you.
Washington proved that there is no dishonor in the tactical retreat. At the end of the day, the only thing mattered was keeping the Continental Army together long enough to outlast the British regulars.
John Boehner is not going to win this current fight on tax rates. At some point, he is going to have to tactically retreat. But this won’t be the last fight. In fact, it will only be the first of many.
And he might not win any of them, in the short term.
Tax rates are going to go up. That is inevitable, given the law as currently constructed. At some point, Boehner and Obama are going to reach an agreement to extend the Bush tax rates for a certain part of the American people. It could happen before January or it could have happen in January. It doesn’t really matter when, just as long as it happens.
At some point in the New Year, Congress is going to have to extend the debt limit. That will be another bruising fight. Can Boehner get something in exchange for the debt ceiling? Probably, but it won’t be enough to satisfy his conservative wing, and it will require a lot of Democratic votes.
At the same time, Congress will make a run at dealing with the Defense Sequester. That too will be bruising because if you are going to stop the sequester, you will have to find spending cuts elsewhere. And that fight will lead to another fight on the 2013 Appropriations bills, which are still not completed. Can Boehner squeeze more blood out of the stone of discretionary spending? I don’t know.
If we take the long slog, it is doubtful we get an overall deal in entitlement reform. The President has little interest in bucking his labor allies.
After getting through all of the unfinished business from 2012, the Speaker will then have to compel his troops to go through the motions of putting together a budget for 2014. There will be some enthusiasm from the die-hards, less so from the regulars, chiefly because the Republican budget will die a lonely death in the Senate, as the Majority of the Upper Body once again thumb their nose at the idea of fiscal responsibility.
Through this long slog, pressure will mount on Boehner to score a tactical victory, but that seems unlikely. The strategic imperative for House Republicans is to not necessarily get the Democrats to capitulate to their policy goals. Rather, the strategic victory for Republicans is to reclaim the political high-ground on issues like fiscal responsibility, taxes, spending and entitlement reform. It is to fight with honor and then strategically retreat at the right times, until reinforcements can arrive in the 2014 elections.
We will see if Boehner will ultimately find his Yorktown or even in the short-term, his Trenton. In the meantime, he is going to be leading a rag-tag bunch of rowdy Republicans in series of seemingly conflicts with the modern day version of King George III.