Government shutdown: Is John Boehner losing at tea party's game?

Speaker John Boehner said Sunday that the House wouldn't vote to end the government shutdown unless President Obama made some concessions. But Democrats have heard this before.

Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio arrives at the Capitol in Washington Saturday. The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate are at an impasse, neither side backing down after House GOP conservatives linked a government funding bill to changes to President Obama's signature health-care law.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is coming face-to-face with the tactics that his party has introduced to contemporary American politics, and boy is it frustrating.

Tea party-fueled Republicans certainly didn't introduce the stonewall into American politics. Last time we checked, the United States Senate was founded on the idea of members in the minority making life unbearable for the majority. See: filibuster.

But the tea party revolution has brought a new wrinkle. Unable to get much of anything through the legislative process, the Republicans found a new lever: the debt ceiling. In 2011, they used the threat of refusing to raise it to win the sequester cuts – their one major victory of the tea party era.

Like football or poker, however, politics is essentially a game (despite Mr. Boehner's protestations to the contrary Friday), and when one team wins, the other is sure to change tactics to prevent it happening again. If defensive coordinators in the National Football League spend late nights in the office devising schemes to solve the read option, why would we not expect the same of strategists in the halls of Congress?

So the Republicans found in 2011 that the threat of global economic meltdown was sufficient to get the Democrats to blink. It shouldn't be so surprising that the Democrats now would be willing to turn the tables. If they didn't, after all, they would be conceding that the Republicans could bully them into concessions they find odious every time a debt-ceiling rise came due – or government funding ran out. (Which is essentially what has happened.)

How do you think that prospect has sat with Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada? No wonder he always looks like Mr. Crankypants. But now he's had enough.

Think of it this way. For a few years, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was able to make his bargain-basement teams competitive with the New York Yankees of the world through "Moneyball" – a revolutionary way of assessing baseball talent. Then, everyone started to catch on – including the big spenders – and he lost his advantage.

In other words, the rest of the league caught on and started playing the same game.

Today's stalemate in Congress over the government shutdown and a potential debt-limit increase is little different. For a while, the tea party punched above its weight because it was willing to stand on its principles, seemingly heedless of the outcome. This wasn't wholly new, perhaps, but the depth of the tea party's commitment to its principles certainly threw Congress off balance for a few years.

Now, Democrats are saying: "We can play this game, too." And frankly, this, too, is a matter of principle for the likes of Mr. Reid. For a former boxer who approaches politics with the same subtlety, the desire not to get steamrolled by a group he considers "anarchists" is a matter of the deepest political principle. 

The fact is, it is not at all clear where Boehner comes down on all this. His political pedigree suggests that he's closer to Reid as a politician than to his own upstarts. By trade, he's a dealmaker. Yet his job as Speaker depends upon him taking a stand he knows he has virtually no chance of winning this time.

The House will not pass a "clean CR" he said Sunday. In Washington code, "CR" means continuing resolution – a bill to temporarily fund government. In other words, he says the House won't end the government shutdown and avert a debt-limit crisis unless President Obama, Reid, and the Democrats play ball. Boehner's brood wants a replay of 2011.

"This isn't some damn game," a frustrated Boehner told reporters Friday.

Except ... it is, as he very well knows. And now the Democrats are turning the tea party's own rules against him.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Government shutdown: Is John Boehner losing at tea party's game?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today