The Personal and the Political

The debt-ceiling deadlock isn't about Obama and Boehner's relationship

As the debt ceiling standoff drags on and on, imperiling America’s creditworthiness and pushing other issues off the agenda, it’s hard to find many silver linings. But there is one fruitful thing about the way the debate has played out: it has made clear that journalists make a mistake when they cover national politics as though everything depends on personal relationships between partisan opponents.

That’s the mindset that has attracted considerable journalistic attention, over the last eight months, to the question of whether or not Barack Obama and John Boehner can “work together.” The topic drew the interest of elite media as soon as Republicans stormed their way to a House majority in last fall’s elections. Just days after the votes were cast, Peter Baker of The New York Times penned an article that made much of the distance between Washington’s “new power couple,” and suggested they might bond on the golf course.

With partisan gridlock quickly becoming the dominant story in D.C., the meme persisted. Eventually, Obama and Boehner either came to believe it themselves or just gave in, and last month, in a widely reported display of bipartisan bonhomie, they went golfing. Press coverage of these staged events is often half-mocking, but the day on the fairways was treated as serious news. A long article about the pair’s relationship that appeared just yesterday on The Washington Post’s site described the event in deadly earnest terms: “Acquaintances described the closely guarded outing as loose, with plenty of good-natured ribbing,” readers learn, while top officials called it “a pivot point.”

But a pivot to what, exactly? The golf outing was apparently part of a series of talks between the two men, and for a few days last week there were reports that Boehner and Obama might, improbably, be moving toward a “grand bargain” on the deficit. Then—though the reported terms largely amounted to Boehner agreeing to take “yes” for an answer—the Speaker pulled out of the talks over the weekend.

The Post story gets at some of the reasons why, as does a “news analysis” in today’s New York Times. But it was an article in Politico this morning that explained most clearly what’s happening:

Speaker John Boehner’s decision not to “go big” on a debt limit deal is the starkest demonstration yet of the limits of the Ohio Republican’s power.

The internal GOP backlash against his efforts to secure a package of $4 trillion in spending cuts and revenue-raisers revealed that Boehner sometimes is little more than the first among equals—capable of synthesizing Republican sentiments but unwilling to drive them.

Tax hikes, by any name, are a non-starter for a party that forged its brand on the mantra of lower taxes and less government, and Boehner’s willingness to talk rates with President Barack Obama—particularly in the context of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s refusal to do so—raised eyebrows within his conference…

“It’s crazy to think the speaker was considering a trillion [dollars] in tax increases. After all, we’re the anti-tax party,” said one veteran Republican lawmaker close to leadership. “Cantor brought him, the economy and our party back from the abyss…”

In other words, it’s not that Obama and Boehner couldn’t work together, it’s that Boehner’s party didn’t want them to work together. (Obama’s party is conflicted, but the president clearly has much more leeway.) What’s more, we’ve seen this act before—Baker’s article last November buried the lede, noting that when Boehner hinted he might agree with Obama’s proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts, “he was pummeled by fellow Republicans.”

As I wrote at that time, Boehner’s experience shows that “once party discipline is entrenched, it turns out, leaders are bound by it as much as they enforce it.” And as today’s Politico story, which focuses in detail on the Cantor/Boehner connection, makes clear, this means that the personal relationships that are most compelling to watch are often the ones within partisan coalitions, through which that discipline is exercised.

It’s possible to take this line of argument too far, of course. All else equal, it’s easier to reach a deal when the representatives from each side have a history of working well together. But we have deep-seated polarization in American politics because the donors, activists, and office-holders of the two parties are committed to very different ideological programs. And we have repeated high-stakes brinksmanship because one party—that would be the Republicans—has decided to abandon political convention in pursuit of its goals, which means that once-routine actions like keeping the government running or raising the debt ceiling are now part of the fight.

In the wake of Obama’s press conference today—which featured plenty of presidential praise for Boehner, but also made clear how far we are from a debt ceiling deal—it will be interesting to see what journalistic frame prevails. Will reporters adopt business-world jargon about a “lack of trust” undermining the debt ceiling talks? Or will they tell the story in terms of political parties, which is the only way to understand what’s really going on?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.