And not because he can’t control the Tea Party.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for House Speaker John Boehner. He seems like a reasonable man caught in a trap. His Republican majority in the House can’t decide whether a repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act needs to be a condition of any agreement on anything else. But Boehner, along with the rest of the Republican leadership at the time, built this trap for himself in 2009 and early 2010, before the Tea Party caucus was formed.
In 2009 the Republican minority, faced with what would eventually become the Affordable Care Act, he had a choice. Obama, like every President, wanted to pass something that someone might call a “bipartisan achievement.” To get that, he needed a couple of Republicans to make an offer, a price in exchange for their votes. The answer, from the entire caucus: nothing. No price, no votes. Under any conditions. There was extraordinary, Pelosi-like discipline among Republicans in the House and the Senate. No offer, no deal, no votes.
After a televised meeting with the president in late February of 2010, Boehner, then-Senator John Kyl (R-Ariz.), and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) huddled in front of the White House to answer questions. “What we think we ought to do is start over, go step by step, and target the areas of possible agreement,” said McConnell. “That’s why the bill needs to be scrapped,” said Boehner. “We need to start over on those things that we can work together on.”
Kyl, like Boehner and McConnell, agreed on some unspecified areas of future agreement. But those areas would not be reached by “tweaking” the bill, he said. “The whole concept of the bill, with its government mandates, its taxes, its spending, and all of the other features of it, are what make it unacceptable to us and to the American people,” said Kyl, “and that’s where we have to start.” McConnell then jumped in so that he, too, could say “scrap this bill.”
Scrap. Start over. Not tweakable. It was clever at the time. Sound reasonable but ensure that none of those reasonable-sounding ideas would accidentally become concessions in a bill made law. Adults could agree on modest steps to fix health care. But the Affordable Care Act was unfixable.
The next month, Obama sent a letter to Republicans, offering to expand tax-favored health savings accounts, more aggressively investigate Medicare fraud, and fund demonstration projects to seek alternatives to medical malpractice lawsuits. These had all been Republican ideas, but Boehner, in a statement, gave the same answer: “There is no reason to lump sensible proposals into a fundamentally flawed 2,000-page bill. … The American people want the President to start over with a clean sheet of paper.” Scrap it. Start over. It’s not tweakable.
It doesn’t matter whether this was a cynical strategy or a sincere act of political conviction. In 2010, Boehner sent a message to the party that was still his to lead: No part of this bill is acceptable. It cannot be allowed to pass. Period.
So now he’s stuck. He has a majority in one of the chambers of Congress, but he can’t use it to improve any aspect of health policy, because the Affordable Care Act—which is currently law, remember—is unfixable. He should not be surprised or frustrated that members of his own party have reached the obvious and logical conclusion to a strategy he signed off on three years ago. If Obamacare is unfixable and unacceptable, what kind of American would accept it? Why would we expect our politicians to do anything other than fight it in the air and on the sea?
Three years ago, this strategy nearly worked. Democrats had a tough time getting it together when Scott Brown (R-Mass.) entered the Senate and it looked like they’d need a single Republican vote to pass the bill. We should not feel too badly for John Boehner or any member of the Republican leadership that the rhetorical stand they took in 2010 is proving such a bother now.