I received a lot of disagreement for my post over the weekend defending Speaker Boehner, and I understand the frustration. But I maintain my ground that taking out our frustrations on him is not simply unfair but probably imprudent, too, for reasons that may just now be coming into focus. I can see that I may need to book space in brother Mirengoff’s bunker where he had to flee after defending Mike Castle over Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 Delaware Senate race.
Here’s the problem: it is foolish to suppose that a more “dynamic” or “principled” Speaker would be sufficient to turn around the fiscal cliff debate of the present moment. This impulse both overestimates the power of—and underestimates the difficulty of—political rhetoric in the short term. The contours of the present losing hand the GOP holds were set months ago, when Romney and the rest of the Republican Party leadership failed to contest Obama effectively on the issue of taxes and “fairness.” Dumping Boehner now is like saying the Jets, down three touchdowns with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, should now switch to Tim Tebow and the wildcat offense to try to pull it out of the fire. Demanding that Boehner and House Republicans go down with guns blazing and refusing any tax increase in order to protect the Republican “no-tax” brand is to turn away from how a tactical retreat may prepare the ground for larger victories ahead. The GOP isn’t going to lose its brand ID because it accedes to a tax increase on millionaires under these circumstances. This is not the same as 1990, when the first President Bush botched the budget deal. The public knows which party is, and which party isn’t, driving this mess.
We’ve been among the many voices urging the House GOP to seize the initiative by passing something—Simpson-Bowles, anything—to force Obama’s hand. Now, as Paul noted earlier today, it appears Boehner is ready to do so with his “Plan B.” It may turn out that Boehner’s patience will be rewarded: having offered a grudging concession on taxes, we are starting to see that Democrats are fracturing over any serious spending cuts. If Obama can’t deliver Democrats, it will shatter the media meme that Republicans are the obstacle to any deal, and Democrats will suddenly become the final cause of going over the fiscal cliff.
No, this is far from ideal. Ideal would have been winning the election. Or at least a Senate majority to join the House majority. Failing this, Boehner is playing his bad hand as best as might be hoped with surviving to win the next hand in mind.
Conservatives should be the party of good judgment, not just of principles. Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense—but those principles must be defended with good judgment. Conservatives need to be intelligent, and they shouldn’t use their principles as substitutes for intelligence. Principles need to be there so judgment can be distinguished from opportunism. But just because you give ground on principle doesn’t mean you’re an opportunist.