Who Feels More Sorry for John Boehner?

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By Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru

This is part of a continuing dialogue between Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson about Washington politics.

Margaret: Here's my problem arguing with you, Ramesh, over the fiscal-cliff negotiations. I think I probably feel more sorry for Speaker John Boehner than you do.

On Sunday, when what he probably really wanted was a round of golf and a glass of merlot on the 19th hole, he had to walk into the White House to meet with President Barack Obama knowing that eventually he's going to get whupped. And his whupping isn't going to come from the president -- it will be from his fellow Republicans.

"Saturday Night Live" dramatized the spot the speaker finds himself in, staging a mock joint Obama-Boehner press conference announcing their agreement to raise rates on the "top two" taxpayers. "I felt sorry for this man, I realize how badly the Republican Party treats him," Obama said. "Leave this poor, orange man alone."

What a shame Obama and Boehner can't be themselves. They have more in common with each other than with the extremes of their parties. By their natures, they are drawn to compromise, as indicated by their records before becoming speaker and president -- not to mention the Grand Bargain they hammered out last year.

Boehner may wish for the power he had during the days of the Grand Bargain, which eventually collapsed, and debt-ceiling standoff. He's not negotiating with last year's Obama. Obama is no longer the guy walking into the car dealership and paying full price just because he wants to show how reasonable he is. That Obama has been replaced by the guy who won big, has the public on his side and has decided to rub it in.

Too bad Bohener no longer has the option to negotiate inside the room and talk trash outside. Last week, before their agreed-upon silence took hold, he came out in his open-collar shirt to characterize the progress so far as  "a joke" and the conversations a colossal "waste of time."

That must have felt good. If you can't beat them on the field, as they say, beat them in the bleachers -- or, as the case may be, on the circular driveway in front of of the White House. Boehner whispered last week in answer to a question: "There are a lot of things that are possible to put the revenue that the president seeks on the table." That was interpreted to mean a tax hike. Later he said he didn't mean that. Most likely he did, and then his caucus pushed back.

That's the downside of talking after a negotiating session: Your people get a chance to body check you. But there is a definite upside: Boehner needs a place to talk big, because it isn't in the room with the president.

The perpetually tan and rested Boehner is looking pale over his dilemma: He knows he has to give in on rates, but he can't do it too quickly. If he does, his leadership will almost certainly be challenged. Yet the longer he waits, the less time there is to negotiate any entitlement reform.

It's almost enough to wish him that two-taxpayer tax increase for Christmas.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

Ramesh: I’m not sure, Margaret, that Boehner is as worried as people think about a leadership challenge from his right. My guess is that two other irritants are more on his mind.

The first is that all the Republicans taking negotiating positions to his left on television. Senate Republicans, in particular, have to be annoying him: They have no real power over any deal except to undercut Boehner’s negotiating position, and that’s what they’re doing -- in return for airtime rather than for any policy concession from the Democrats. If Boehner commanded a unified and disciplined group of Republicans, he could credibly threaten to let the country go over the cliff and stay over it until he got some concessions. The White House, looking at the disarray that actually characterizes the Republicans, has to be asking itself why it needs to concede anything, on tax rates or entitlements. And Boehner knows it.

The second irritant is Boehner’s negotiating partner. As one of 12 children, the speaker doubtless learned to negotiate early. The Obama of Bob Woodward’s latest book is a poor negotiator who thinks he’s a great one.

Boehner has very little leverage and a negotiating partner who’s not very good at negotiating. It seems highly unlikely that entitlement reform is going to come out of this process. And as much as I’d like to see entitlement reform, it also seems undesirable for it to come about in a few weeks of frantic deal- making before an artificial deadline.

You’re right that Boehner isn’t negotiating with last year’s Obama. But he’s not negotiating with next year’s Obama, either. The further away we get from the 2012 election, the more the psychological balance in Washington will shift. Republicans will regroup; Democratic momentum will slow. Maybe the smart play for Republicans is to extend the middle-class tax cuts for a year, and see what deal they can get at their new expiration date. See you next cliff.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Dec/11/2012 14:23 GMT