Susan Estrich: Power and powerlessness

January 11, 2013 10:20:24 AM

Susan Estrich -

 

Years ago, when the candidate I was working for rejected my advice, I made the mistake of going back to the headquarters and telling my loyal staff (who together had formulated the rejected proposal) that our recommendation had been declined. I did my best, I told them, but I just couldn't make the sale. 

 

One of my closest pals, and one of the smartest politicos I've ever known, took me aside to tell me I had made a monstrous mistake. I thought he meant my failure to sell our plan. No, he said, that was clearly impossible. The mistake was telling everyone I'd failed, rather than convincing them that, upon further reflection, I'd changed my mind and come to the conclusion, shared by the candidate, that our plan was flawed. 

 

You just admitted to half of the campaign that you are powerless, he explained. Far better in the long run for them to think you were just wrong. 

 

Wise advice. 

 

Someone should have told John Boehner. 

 

He emerged from the latest debacle not as the guy who stood up, but as the guy who gave up. He comes out of it not wrong, but irrelevant. 

 

On the day he was elected Speaker of the House, he was being tagged by friend and foe as the congressional equivalent of a lame duck, neither the leader of his party nor the leader of the House, the guy with the gavel, not the power, a man whose word does not mean a majority, even of his own whips. 

 

He may get invited to the White House in the future, but it will be the Senate leaders who cut the deal with the president, and the Democrats in the House -- joined by a minority of Republicans, the splinter group in a party divided -- who enact it. The Speaker could not even hold his own lieutenants. He might just as well have agreed with them. 

 

On the eve of the vote, the ever-pugnacious former Labor Secretary Bob Reich sent an email exhorting Democrats that no deal would be better than a bad deal. Actually, as a Democrat, I disagree. The president might have been prepared to blame congressional Republicans, but he's the president, the guy who couldn't put the deal together. His State of the Union would have been a disaster, the very sort of ugly politics people voted against. 

 

So there was a deal -- a partial, unsatisfying deal that violated all of Boehner's claims that Republicans weren't ready to give on taxes, that dealt not at all with spending cuts, that was opposed by the majority of his party. 

 

House Republicans didn't redeem themselves in the public's eye; they looked like a divided, weak and increasingly irrelevant group. They didn't stand on principle; they fell apart on politics. 

 

What could he have done? If he couldn't get his party to the table to make a deal, then maybe the second best solution was not to advertise his weakness but to affirm his leadership, even if flawed. The result was a foregone conclusion. Boehner's fate was not. 

 

He didn't just lose. He gave up any vestige of power. 

 

Not an auspicious way to begin a new Congress. Publicly speaking, the folks who support the deal and the folks who oppose it can probably agree on one thing: The Speaker gets no credit with the former and plenty of blame from the latter. Lose-lose. There might have been no chance for him to win much, but losing with everyone is the one thing you want to avoid in politics -- unless you are standing on principle in doing so. 

 

I never heard Boehner stand up and say that even if he were the only Republican to support it, he would make a deal and stand by it. I never heard him say he'd resign if no one followed it. 

 

When I complained to my friend that people would think I was wrong for doing whatever it was that I didn't want to do, he told me that unless I was willing to resign over it (and maybe I should have), holding on to the appearance of power is more important than taking the heat both inside and outside. Yep. 

 

Boehner is now trying to double back, insisting he won't play ball in the future, that his principles really are that. It might work. But I wouldn't count on it. Power is easy to lose and hard to get back.