Let’s have some genuine applause for John Boehner’s leadership: his acknowledgement that a smaller debt deal makes sense does seem to allow a path to avoid default and, simultaneously, lets the Republican Party make the best of the politically disastrous decision to play with the debt limit.
The decision to bring up the debt issue in the first place was a no-win situation for the GOP. Under the initial plan, Republicans could either get real debt reduction by coming up with a plan that the administration and Senate Democrats want—modest spending cuts and big tax increases—or force default on the debt and thereby cause an even more serious recession. A modest plan that puts aside the “trillions” in cuts that Boehner once promised allows for a “plan C”: a package of spending cuts that can get Democratic votes and a Presidential signature in return for a short-term debt limit increase. Even better, from a rank-and-file point of view, such a plan could let many members stake out a position to the right of their own leadership and get away with it.
The real losers for real leadership may be Boehner and the rest of his leadership team. He’ll have to bring to the floor a package that, most likely, will pass only because Democrats will support it. The Democrats who support it will get kudos from the business community and, given the way such things work in Washington, whatever they want from the White House. (Want a regulation to benefit a big local employer? The President showing up at your next fundraiser? Some tax breaks for your friends? Senate consideration of a pet proposal? Step right up.) Republicans will have many fewer favors to offer but will still have to twist arms. For every Republican “no” vote that pads his or her majority in a right-leaning “safe” seat and fends off a Tea Party challenge, another member in a less-safe Republican district will be stuck casting a “no right way” vote. Meanwhile, Democrats will get the credit for being the ones who favor a big-time deficit reduction package without actually having to vast a vote in favor of the painful choices it will involve. It seems quite possible that Boehner will face a semi-serious challenge to his leadership at some point: it probably won’t succeed but it could well lead him to decide to cut his career short.
Is this “Plan C” better for the GOP than any alternative currently on the table? Quite possibly. Does Speaker Boehner prove his leadership bona fides by bringing it up? Yup. Is it a real political winner? Not at all. But, once the debt ceiling debate began, no Republican alternative ever was.