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Stand By Your Man

Peter Ferrara

Over at the American Spectator, Peter Ferrara makes the case for dumping John Boehner as Speaker of the House, and replacing him with . . . well, I’ll get to that part of Peter’s argument in a moment.  Peter is one of the unsung workhorses and heroes of conservatism in Washington, battling every day to shore up the cause of lower taxes and spending restraint on Capitol Hill.  So in my disagreeing with him, Peter deserves the regard that, I am pleased to note, he pays to Boehner.  Bottom line: I think Peter is mistaken on this call, and that we should stick with Boehner.

Peter begins his case thus:

John Boehner is a good man in a hard place. He has served in public office as a lifelong conservative, not a RINO. His position on the Obama tax increases has been better than almost any other Republican who has been speaking out lately, given the Obama/Democrat election victories — close loopholes and deductions for $800 billion in new revenue over a decade, but no increases in rates.

Good for Peter.  Still, he thinks, Boehner needs to go anyway, because “Boehner is no match for Obama on the national stage.  He cannot press the economic arguments articulately.  He does not have a compelling personality. Obama is running circles around Boehner with outrageous falsehoods, and Boehner cannot raise a peep to challenge him.”  He goes on to say that Boehner isn’t even the equal of the old rumpled Tip O’Neill (coat size: 52 stout), who often fought off Ronald Reagan effectively on budget issues.

Here I think Peter’s recollection of the Reagan years has grown opaque.  In fact, a lot of Democrats back in 1981 thought about O’Neill exactly as Ferrara thinks about Boehner today—that he couldn’t possibly match up with the telegenic Reagan, and that he couldn’t oppose Reagan’s tax cut plans effectively.  And they were (partly) right.  O’Neill failed to prevent Reagan’s across-the-board tax cut from passing the House.  In a striking irony, the Democratic alternative in 1981 that O’Neill tried to pass is almost exactly what Obama wants today: tax cuts for the middle class only.  You might think of the present moment as O’Neill’s Revenge.

Two Irishmen battle for dominance.

However, O’Neill had one insight that is important to take on board today.  Coming off a big election victory as Reagan had in 1980, O’Neill knew that Reagan had to be given his way to some extent at least in the short run.   While O’Neill battled as best he could to limit Reagan’s designs, he told his troops that the best strategy was to give Reagan the rope by which he’d hang himself.  Reagan would own the economy after his economic plan passed.  We know how that story turned out: after the initial steep recession of 1982, which Reagan could have blamed on Democrats if they’d blocked his tax cuts, the economy boomed, Reaganomics was vindicated, and the Republican brand as tax cutters was solidified for a generation.  However, following O’Neill’s tactical retreat in 1981 he was highly effective in thwarting Reagan on numerous fronts after that.  Had Democrats panicked in 1981 and dumped O’Neill for someone else, this might not have occurred.

And so here we are today, on the cusp of Republicans being forced to repudiate their Reaganite legacy.  It is indeed a bitter pill.  But as the O’Neill example shows, along with the basic cycles of politics, more favorable circumstances for our cause will come again.  And maybe sooner than we think—certainly sooner than circumstances changed for Democrats.  Does anyone think Obama’s tax increases on the rich will ignite an economic recovery commensurate with the Reagan economy of the 1980s, or significantly reduce the deficit?  If Obama gets his way, he’ll completely own the economic results real fast.

Couple this with one other political fact: Republicans have shown they can reduce taxes.  At some point—perhaps soon, maybe even as soon as the next mid-term campaign and setting up the 2016 election—Republicans will be able to point to how Obama’s tax rate increases aren’t working, how rich folk (especially Democratic-leaning Hollywood types, Wall Street bankers, crony capitalist energy boondogglists) are evading the higher rates just as they did in the 91% marginal rate era of the 1950s, and at this point a GOP call for sweeping, pro-growth tax reform will return the initiative to our side.  This is one thing the GOP knows how to do.  As the late great Robert Novak once put it, God put the Republican Party on this earth to cut taxes, and other than that they aren’t good for very much else.  (That’s certainly true about the problem of regulation, but that’s a subject for another day.)

It is possible, incidentally, that Boehner is right now in the midst of a strategy that might yet turn the tables slightly on Obama in the fiscal cliff standoff, if Noam Scheiber’s reporting in The New Republic is accurate:

The Times is reporting today that, if John Boehner and the White House can’t reach a deal on averting the fiscal cliff, the House GOP is considering passing a bill that would extend the middle-class Bush income tax cuts while enacting low tax rates (possibly even lower than the current rates) for unearned income like dividends, capital gains, and inheritances, and canceling the automatic defense cuts set to begin next year.

Without knowing much more about it, this strikes me as a very savvy move for the GOP. . .  By conceding on income tax increases for the top two percent while attaching a variety of other goodies on its wish list to the measure, Republicans would put Obama in a very difficult position.

But enough of the endless calculating about what is the best strategy for Republicans and the fiscal cliff.  The second half of Ferrara’s argument should be examined.  He notes that the Speaker of the House doesn’t have to be a member of the House.  The GOP could pick anyone to be Speaker for the purpose of battling Obama in the court of public opinion:

Steve Forbes could be named Speaker of the House. Or Larry Kudlow. Or Steve Moore. Or Paul Gigot. Or Grover Norquist. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Sean Hannity. Or Mark Levin. Someone who can talk, explain, tutor, and at last who knows what he is talking about. How about R. Emmett Tyrrell? Hell, they could even bring Gingrich back.

This is one of those seemingly attractive ideas that is likely to be dreadful in practice, like FDR’s court-packing.  To be sure, it is an odd thing that the “Speaker of the House” is seldom much of a speaker in the ordinary sense of the word.  In Britain’s House of Commons, from which we borrowed the idea and title of “Speaker,” the member chosen to be “Speaker” actually stops speaking in the typical political sense, and become a mere presiding officer instead.  Gingrich was an exception in the long history of American Speakers of the House, and although Peter makes the case that Newt succeeded in many policy battles with Clinton, it is arguable whether his powers of over-articulation were the primary cause of this.  In fact I think it is possible to make out the argument that Newt was the exception that proves the rule that Speakers of the House are not generally the forward face of the party.  After all, if Newt was so successful, why was his caucus so ready to dump him on more than one occasion, and would certainly have done so in 1998 if he didn’t voluntarily step aside?  Were Sam Rayburn or Carl Albert, both considered highly effective Speakers, dynamic public leaders?

I doubt the public would see an outside Speaker as anything less than a gimmick, and given the confused public sentiment for Washington to “get something done,” it might well backfire on the GOP if people saw an elevated public fight between Obama and a figurehead Speaker as merely trying to rerun the election debate.  And would the rank and file House members feel bound to sticking with or defending an outside Speaker once this current policy battle is over?  More likely this would lead to a period of instability in GOP ranks.

I’m all for better powers of articulation from Republican office holders.  But adopting the political equivalent of the designated hitter rule is likely to intensify rather than remedy the Republican problem of rhetorical weakness.

By the way, one last point: Before we jump on the “Dump-Boehner” bandwagon, let us take note that Boehner’s campaign team managed what Romney and the Senate GOP campaigns failed to do: keep a House majority.  This wasn’t just an accident of redistricting.  And it’s a story no one is really reporting.  Which may be just the way Speaker Boehner wants it.

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