Obama vs. Boehner

Who wins when the president and the minority leader have a debate?

Barack Obama and John Boehner. Click image to expand.
President Obama and Rep. Boehner

Barack Obama is not Justin Coussoule, but he sounds like him sometimes. Coussoule is the Ohio Democrat running against House Minority Leader John Boehner. Last week, Obama singled out Boehner in two different speeches. On Monday, Obama did it again in a meeting with voters. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs started the day by going on the network morning shows to comment on Boehner, then ended it by exchanging Twitter barbs with him. There are 50 days to go before the election. At this pace, the spat between the president and the minority leader may achieve the majesty of a school-board fight.

Everything about this fight feels like a wash. In its most recent iteration, over extending the Bush tax cuts, both parties have muddled positions, and neither the frequency nor the smallness of the combat seem likely to change the dynamic much among voters. In a year when the economy, voter enthusiasm, and history favor Republicans, a wash isn’t good for Democrats.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the positions of both sides and make the call yourself.

First, the latest details. The most recent round of combat started Friday. At his news conference, the president said that Republicans were holding the middle class “hostage.” They were blocking an extension of the Bush tax cuts to those making less than $250,000, demanding tax relief for everyone—or “tax cuts for millionaires,” as the president put it. On Face the Nation on Sunday, Boehner said that he would work to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone, but if he were only given an option of voting for middle-class tax cuts alone, he would take that.

Now for the spin:

The White House view: Boehner was off-message, which meant Republicans had to spend a day asserting that they were unified in their support of tax cuts for everyone. “During a campaign you are either on offense or defense,” said a Bush-era veteran from the sidelines. “And this seems very defensive. The White House has to love this.”

By seeming to agree to a compromise, Boehner is in a box. He will either have to vote with the Democrats or  explain why, when a vote comes up in the House, he wasn’t for extending the tax cuts to the middle class. He will look either cynical or like a flip-flopper, say White House aides. When he votes against the tax cuts (as Democrats expect), his back and forth will show everyone that in the end the GOP cares more about those who make over $250,000 than those who don’t.

If nothing else, the broader fight and its most recent chapter put Boehner in the news cycle for another day. The only way the press is going to cover the election in the way that the White House wants—which is as a choice between Democratic and Republican philosophies, not as a referendum on Obama or the economy—is if there’s conflict. Obama vs. Boehner provides that. (The White House sought to highlight this bigger ideological battle in a blog post at the end of the day Monday.)

A Boehner vs. Obama fight also gives focus to White House aides. As during the 2008 campaign, they can wake up with a political mission every day: How do we define John Boehner? (The Democratic National Committee answered that question today with a new ad about him.) It also gets editors and producers to start asking, “What do we really know about John Boehner?” That leads to stories like this New York Times piece on Boehner’s ties to lobbyists. The exposure also might give people second thoughts about giving Republicans control of Congress. Inconsistency, confusion, and other minor errors grow larger when people start to think of a politician as the leader of the majority in Congress.

The Republican view: When Obama is saying Republicans are inflexible and unwilling to accept any compromise, why is it bad for the potential House GOP leader to seem open to a compromise? Boehner’s comment isn’t exactly like Joe Barton’s apology to BP executives, which was easy to repeat and required no explanation to voters.

Sure, Republicans had to spend a news cycle reasserting their positions. But they aren’t nearly as confused on the question of tax cuts as the Democrats are. Obama spoke Monday in the Virginia district of Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who essentially holds the Boehner position on tax cuts. Democratic Senate aides report that seven Senate Democrats and Joe Lieberman have said they prefer extending the tax cuts for everyone. A group of moderate House Democrats circulated a letter Monday asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do the same. The vote that Democrats are anxious to have in the House in order to expose John Boehner will also expose Democrats in tough districts who don’t want to vote on anything that can be characterized as a tax increase.

True, Boehner is getting more scrutiny. But sometimes that coverage can be good, like this MSNBC story about Boehner’s humble roots that his office posted on its Web site. Also, if Robert Gibbs wants to tweet New York Times stories about lobbyist ties, then Republicans can do the same thing with Obama lobbyist work. If this election is a debate about general governing philosophies, there’s evidence that it isn’t hurting Republicans. The latest CNN and Washington Post polls show that despite a fuzzy agenda Republicans are now more trusted on several key issues than Democrats.

For now, the debate over what Boehner may do if faced with a vote in the House is moot. Democratic leaders have decided to let the Senate go first in the debate over tax cuts. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says his caucus is united against any tax legislation that does not extend all the tax cuts. That effectively blocks the legislation. If the Senate version dies, the House may take up the legislation, but the matter is still being debated among a split caucus. Some in the White House want the House Democratic leadership to force Boehner’s hand and call a vote—but the president, at least as of this writing, doesn’t have a vote in the House. Even though at times he behaves like a candidate who wants one.

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