John Boehner, Speaker of the House and nominal leader of the Republican Party, has a difficult existence. It could be worse—he is rich and famous after all, and when this is all over he can settle into a cushy life of lobbying and giving speeches—but for now it’s hard to be John Boehner. The reason: he has no good options. In short, Boehner is stuck down a path in a Choose Your Own Adventure book where he’s already made too many wrong turns, and there’s nothing he can really do.
Seriously, if you were John Boehner, would you:
Option 1: Put a clean Continuing Resolution (which funds the government with no strings attached) or
Option 2: Keep waiting out the government shutdown in the hopes that the public turns in your favor.
Let’s say you have Boehner choose the first option: The clean CR passes, you appear to be bowing to Obama’s will, you can no longer hold off the Tea Party anger in the 2014 elections and they depose you as Speaker.
Ooh, that’s bad. How about Option 2?
The Republican Party keeps getting hurt in the polls, the narrative shifts to whether they can even hold the House in 2014 and John Boehner has to go on television every day to say that they are doing right by the American people.
Still bad, but at least it improves Boehner’s job security and keeps Republicans united in the short term. So you pick Option 2. Then what?
The government is still shutdown and the debt ceiling needs to be raised soon. Democrats are still not negotiating on Obamacare, and only really want to talk about entitlement reform if it is coupled with revenue increases, another non-starter for your Tea Party caucus. What would you have John Boehner do?
Option 1: Offer a clean vote on a short-term raise in the debt ceiling.
Option 2: Keep playing chicken with the Democrats and say that you won’t raise the debt ceiling without changes to Obamacare or entitlement programs.
Option 3: Go for a grand bargain that would raise the debt ceiling, end the shutdown, reform the sequester and reform entitlements.
With option 1, you get the debt ceiling raise through, but the Tea Party is angry and threatens your job again. The media begins to openly wonder why John Boehner won’t do the same with the government shutdown, as it that would clearly pass as well.
Option 2 plays well with the GOP base, but Obama knows that you won’t let the country default. The Senate passes a debt-ceiling raise. John Boehner tries to tie raising the debt ceiling together with undoing the medical device tax in Obamacare, but Obama reiterates that he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, and Boehner is left back in the same dilemma with time running low.
Option 3: The grand bargain. This is fraught with peril. It would first require a temporary reprieve in the government shutdown and probably the debt ceiling, to give a more comfortable window to negotiate. Even that would be enough to anger the Tea Party, but then the bargain itself could never satisfy Democrats enough to pass and Tea Partiers enough to stop them from trying to fire you. For a grand bargain to be acceptable to Democrats, it has to have stuff they want (like revenue, infrastructure spending, sequester reversal) in addition to raising the debt ceiling and ending the government shutdown.
You can blame the turns John Boehner made earlier in the game, or you can blame the rise of the Tea Party or some combination thereof. Either way, it all leads to the same end one way or the other: John Boehner is screwed.