What John Boehner Missed at the White House Holiday Party

a | A

By Margaret Carlson & Ramesh Ponnuru

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

Margaret: I went to the White House holiday party for the press this year, Ramesh, and here comes some (needed) humblebrag: My daughter and I were two of about a thousand folks shuffled in for a two-minute encounter and a photo with the president and first lady. It’s worth the hour outside in the cold and the feeling of being herded around on a class trip. I never get over being there. The lamb chops are secondary.

Here’s how this anecdote fits into our discussion. House Speaker John Boehner went to a similar gathering for members of Congress last week. He rushed in and out and left without greeting his hosts. He couldn’t spare the five minutes?  (I’m sure he wouldn’t be waiting in line). It isn't as if his colleagues would know, or fault him if they did. It's our White House. Pay your respects.

Speaking of pictures, Ramesh, you mentioned Republicans moving to the left of Boehner for a moment under the klieg lights. Agreed the most dangerous place in Washington is between a member of Congress and a camera, etc. etc.,  but I quibble with your point that folks like senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are just taking positions to see themselves on TV.

Corker is actually giving Boehner cover to do what inevitably has to be done if the speaker is to get anything in spending and entitlement cuts. Corker has been remarkably resistant to Washington Ego Disease (WED). Since he got here, he has played the pragmatist more than the egotist. He’s simply nudging his party to get out of its Romney rut as the one to protect the perks of the white and the rich. If the country goes off the cliff so that a hedge-fund manager in Connecticut can exercise his right to buy a Mercedes instead of a Lexus, bring on 2014. It will make 2012 look like a day at the beach.

Corker comes at this from right of center. A practicing businessman before joining the Senate, Corker knows the major factor in hiring someone new is not a modest tax increase -- 97 percent of small businessmen will be unaffected -- but whether they will bring in more in revenue than they cost in salary and benefits. Small businessmen will start hiring again when the middle-class has enough income to buy a Chevy.

As for Graham, conservatives fault him for being the new John McCain, playing the preening maverick for the benefit of the press. Even granting that he has a mild case of WED, he wouldn’t suggest taking the tax increase on the 2 percent if it weren’t the smart thing to do politically. He’s not looking to make his re-election fight any harder.

To your point about Obama’s negotiating skills, or lack thereof, I left the wrong impression: I didn’t mean they were good. I meant to say they were better than when he did this the last time. We won't know if his skills have improved until next year, when he doesn't hold all the cards he has now.

Back to the House side: You may be right that Boehner is not in danger of being challenged. I underestimated the control you get over your caucus when you strip three slightly independent committee chairmen of their perches. You can feel the love that flows from the prospect of getting (or keeping) a plum assignment and preferential parking space.

What I don’t understand about Republicans, and this includes Corker, is their thinking that their ace in the hole is the next vote on raising the debt ceiling. Paying what you already owe is fundamentally conservative and American. We don’t punk out on our debts. Threatening to vote against raising debt ceiling, resulting in our bond rating going down and our interest rates going up -- that's the Republicans' idea of a winner?

How well did that go for them last time? Granted, their favorability rating can’t go much lower. But why test it?

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

Ramesh: We could have hashed all these issues out at the White House Christmas party, Margaret -- if only I’d been invited. If the administration has a conservative outreach program, I’m not part of it.

One thing I would have cleared up over the lamb chops: I didn’t mean to suggest that Senators Corker and Graham are just talking about the deals they would favor in order to get on TV. Both seem thoughtful and sincere.

What I was trying to get across is that Senate Republicans are largely irrelevant to the cliff negotiations, and that the main effect of their musings, whatever their intent, is to undercut Boehner’s position in the negotiations by showing Republicans to be in disarray. To the extent Boehner needs to worry about a revolt from his right if he makes a deal -- as you know, I think he’s in less danger than people think -- Corker can’t protect him from one. He can’t provide cover, that is, since the conservatives who distrust Boehner trust him less.

But -- again -- I don’t think he’s in that much danger to start with. You mention the conservatives who lost desirable committee assignments. They have been making themselves out to be martyrs, punished for the purity of their political principles, and plenty of conservative activists have bought it.

Most of Boehner’s Republican colleagues, though -- including very conservative ones who are, as you suggest, hard to intimidate -- seem to be perfectly content with the committee rosters. They think the four representatives  who lost their perches had it coming, not because they’re too conservative but because they’re too hard to work with. Note that among the representatives who got nice assignments are Idaho’s Raul Labrador and South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney, than whom it is not possible to be more ideologically conservative.

The Republicans in Congress don’t, as far as I can tell, recall the debt-ceiling fight the same way you do. They think that they got the Democrats to agree to spending cuts with no tax increases in 2011, and that the fight had nothing to do with their losses in the election. I think it’s highly unlikely -- almost inconceivable -- that Republicans will agree to eliminate the debt ceiling. And the worse the drubbing they take, and are perceived to take, on the fiscal cliff, the more they will want to use the debt ceiling to get even.

Maybe I wasn’t invited to the White House Christmas party because they wanted cheerier guests.

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

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Dec/13/2012 14:30 GMT