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Boehner’s Tough Spot Hides Democratic Ideological Giveaway

It’s the trendy story to write in Washington. John Boehner is constrained! He doesn’t have enough votes to his right to pass any compromise plan that the Senate can pass, and he doesn’t have enough votes in the Senate to force through the Tea Party’s demands. His only other option is a government shutdown, and outside of the most hardcore fringe, nobody in Washington wants that (though it may be imposed on them). So Boehner could hold his ground and force a distasteful shutdown for which he will probably be blamed, or seek a workout that will raise the ire of the conservative base and possibly mean the end of his Speaker’s term. He’s in a no-win situation.

And certainly, Democrats are loving this. They have thrown Boehner an anvil at every opportunity. They think they can make the politics work either way, and have put Boehner in the unenviable position of having an array of only unpalatable options.

But if the point is to move Boehner to a position of compromise and squeeze him politically, you have to ask what that compromise would look like? And what is the policy that compromise would serve? Is it just to get out of the 2011 budget with as few scratches as possible? Is it just to avoid the policy riders in the budget while conceding on cuts? And who’s minding the store?

The top two Democratic leaders in the House have twice split on whether to approve short-term government funding bills that cut billions from federal accounts. Senate Democrats haven’t put forward a long-term spending plan that can move through their chamber, and Democrats on both sides of the Capitol say they have no idea where the White House stands or who’s running the show.

The result is a rank and file that is confused about its direction and unhappy with the leadership — or lack of it — on when to go along with the Republican-controlled House on budget matters and when to stand and fight.

“The sum and substance of our strategy can’t be waiting for the other side to [mess] up,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told bloggers Wednesday.

And yet, that is the strategy. It’s why what passes for the Democratic message machine is only talking about Boehner and his options, rather than the country and their options. And this has long-term consequences. Weiner expanded on the above quote by saying that the President has no values:

“On our side is this weird squishy affirmative sense of what government should do and how we’re opposed to this cut and that cut, rather than saying, ‘Here are the things: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, environment and education. We’re not cutting those. Those are off the table. That’s non-negotiable,'” said Weiner, adding, “We haven’t really done that very well. That’s because the president fundamentally — he’s not a values guy. He wants to try to get the best deal for the American people and that’s virtuous in its own right, but it becomes very difficult to make a strategy. There’s been much greater global strategy thinking on [progressive media] outlets, frankly, than at 1600 Pennsylvania.”

Over the long term, this is debilitating. It reveals a national party without principles and animating ideals, just a bunch of middle managers trying to nibble around the edges. That stands in total contrast to the youth/labor/progressive alliance bubbling up in places like Wisconsin, which has the potential to reinvent the Democratic Party. Weiner is too Washington/New York corridor focus to understand that potential, and he said that the leadership has to come from the top. But their idea of “leadership” is to manage corporate interests and come up with something upon which they can affix a “progressive” label, regardless of the policy. It’s telling that Americans now think there’s basically no difference between Democrats and Republicans on the deficit. This is not because people consider Republicans to be big spenders, all of a sudden. In fact, the poll shows that people don’t think there’s much difference between national Democrats and Republicans, period.

And in the short-term, it means a policy of unwise spending cuts that will have a damaging effect on the economy and keep hundreds of thousands of people out of work, at a time when we need continued stimulus to address the jobs crisis.

The reinvention of the party from the state and local level will simply take years to move to the national stage. And in the meantime, you have a party disconnected to principle.

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David Dayen

David Dayen