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Don't count Boehner out in debt crisis

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
House Speaker John Boehner holds press conference July 15 after meeting with GOP caucus on the debt ceiling negotiations.
House Speaker John Boehner holds press conference July 15 after meeting with GOP caucus on the debt ceiling negotiations.
  • Julian Zelizer: Some are saying Boehner will be a loser in the debt showdown
  • He says Boehner has been effective at moving the debate toward the right
  • He says the speaker can use the threat of the tea party to gain spending cuts
  • Zelizer: In the end, Boehner can still unite GOP and gain clout

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- As the nation gets closer to the brink of fiscal chaos, many pundits have been writing the political obituary for John Boehner's term as Speaker of the House.

When negotiations over the debt ceiling broke down, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor refusing to accept any tax increase, New York magazine's John Heilemann said: "I think what we learned over this past weekend is that John Boehner . . . is not really Speaker of the House. Eric Cantor is Speaker of the House."

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped in with a compromise of his own, apparently trying to accomplish what his colleague in the House could not achieve, he immediately received praise for seeking to save the GOP from incompetent leadership in the House.

With the Republicans openly divided and apparently lacking any clear leader, it appears that Boehner's future can't be pretty.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

But, in fact, the verdict is still out. Not only is it too early to tell what will happen to him in the coming months as a result of the negotiations, it is also possible to see how Boehner can emerge from the debt ceiling debate in a stronger political position.

If a deal is struck in the next few days, it will be the speaker, not Cantor or McConnell, who could walk away with the biggest political muscle in the Republican caucus.

There are several reasons to think that Boehner might be in a better position than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. One reason is that, at least thus far, Boehner and the House GOP have successfully driven national debate to focus on their priority. Since taking over the chamber after the 2010 election, the speaker has used the debate over fiscal policy to nudge President Obama to the right.

Following two years of discussions about new health care programs, an economic stimulus and financial regulation, policymakers, including the president, are now squarely focused on reducing the size of government. Although Republicans have encountered significant blowback in response to Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to cut the budget, Boehner and his colleagues have been unrelenting in their focus on these issues.

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Rather than challenging the broader arguments that have been promoted by the GOP by focusing, as many Democrats have argued is necessary, on federal policies to lower unemployment and on a launching a defense of government services, the president has generally accepted the terms of debate put forth by Republicans.

When President Obama tried to steal the thunder of the Republicans, he did so by offering an even grander deficit reduction package. The question is how much to cut government -- not whether to do so.

And so the major point of contention has been whether tax increases should also be part of the deficit reduction package.

As Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post wrote, "President Obama moved so far to the right that he has picked up many of the ideals the Republicans have jettisoned and embraced them as his own. It's Obama who's now the deficit-and-debt hawk and who has proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare."

The second important development from the debt ceiling battle is that the speaker has managed to distance himself from the tea party Republicans even while he champions most of their views. Boehner has presented himself as the statesman and the dealmaker who is trying to keep the revolutionaries under control.

The speaker's press people got a lot of mileage out of the famous golf summit, with a number of stories of how well he and the president got along. When the negotiations broke down, the press focused on Cantor bolting from the sessions. Meanwhile, the media reported that the speaker is still open to working with Democrats. Some commentators have suggested that the White House has intentionally fueled this division to aggravate the dissension within the GOP and pit the factions against each other.

Yet the division might come back to bite the administration. In certain respects, Boehner has actually benefited from the zealousness of the tea party Republicans. Their relationship has echoes of the dynamics between Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and northern liberals in the 1950s.

Johnson constantly warned conservative southern Democrats that if they did not compromise on issues like civil rights he would not be able to contain northern liberals like Illinois Senator Paul Douglas who were pushing for much bolder changes. He did this with the goal of moving southerners toward a compromise.

Boehner has been able to do the same with the conservative wing of his party. The speaker has created immense pressure on President Obama to concede on spending cuts by playing into fears of how far tea party Republicans are willing to go. Tea party activists are willing to risk the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling. The speaker conveys the message, moves the president, yet he does not have to take the blame himself. In the longer run, Republicans could feel as if they got the tea party out of their system and seeing the consequences, move back toward the speaker.

The final factor that will determine how the speaker comes out of this remains the biggest unknown. Can Boehner deliver the votes and persuade the extreme elements of his caucus to go along with a deal?

This is where Boehner must avoid, what might be called, the Newt Gingrich syndrome: the inability to control the radical elements in your caucus. Gingrich faced a similar challenge as Boehner in the mid-1990s. During the budget battles of 1995-1996, Gingrich could not control the legislators who had been elected in 1994 and who came to Washington determined to cut down the government. When the time came to reach a deal, Gingrich could not persuade them to go along. The result was a government shutdown that turned public opinion against the GOP.

If the potential for a major financial crisis does persuade House Republicans to go along in the end, however, the speaker could walk away victorious and come out of this legislative mess appearing as the leader who can round up votes.

It is far too early to count Boehner out -- and it is possible to see a number of silver linings for him amid the clouds of the past few weeks. Certainly, Democrats should not underestimate the speaker, nor should his opponents within the GOP. There are many ways to see how this cagey politician can emerge from a bruising battle stronger than before.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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