Leave Boehner Alone!

The government shutdown is a crisis with its roots in both policy differences and disagreements about what means are appropriate to settle those policy differences. But it's also a conflict of individual people and personalities. Not that this should be news to anyone, but the key players involved—President Obama and the four congressional leaders, but most particularly Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—really, really don't like each other. Nothing too surprising there, but I'm beginning to wonder whether Democrats are helping things by the way they're talking about Boehner.

Ordinarily, this kind of thing might matter only at the margins, but we're in a situation now where personal enmities and bruised egos could play a significant part in how and when this whole thing gets settled. Let's stipulate that Boehner is incredibly weak, even pathetic. Democrats look at him with contempt. It's apparent to all that he knows the shutdown is bad for the country and bad for his party, but he can't muster the courage to bring it to an end. He and he alone has the power to end it by himself, by allowing a vote on a "clean CR," a continuing resolution without any provisions undermining the Affordable Care Act. As soon as he does that, the shutdown is over.

Right now, the Democrats' goal is to end the shutdown as soon as possible without giving anything up. The question is, what can they do to hasten that conclusion, given the fact that the power rests right now with Boehner? One thing that probably won't do it is insulting Boehner in public, because when they do that, they make it harder for him to make that final decision to say no to the conservatives and allow a vote on a clean CR. If Harry Reid calls him a coward for not being willing to buck the Tea Partiers or mocks Boehner for having hurt feelings, he doesn't make him more willing to buck the Tea Partiers. Boehner won't say, "I'll show you I'm not a coward!" Quite the opposite.

A little self-awareness would help. Of all the things Republicans don't want in this fight, feeling like they're giving Harry Reid any satisfaction is near the top of the list. By all accounts, Republicans truly loathe Reid, which I understand. Reid may speak softly, never raising his voice, but he says some pretty mean things about his political opponents. This is sometimes characterized as him just not being smooth and slick, but it's not about whether he's telegenic; on a regular basis, Reid phrases things or uses words that make most Democrats cringe because they go just a little too far. (This is a stark contrast to his counterpart McConnell, who may be the most disciplined communicator in Washington. Every syllable out of his mouth is something he planned carefully.) At the same time, Reid is very good at his job, so Republicans can't view him as just pathetic in the way Democrats see Boehner. They hate him.

So perhaps what Reid should be doing is giving John Boehner a little space. Make your arguments about why the shutdown is bad. You can even keep pointing out that Boehner can end it whenever he wants. But right now, the country is waiting for Boehner to muster the courage to allow the clean CR, and Democrats shouldn't do anything that's bound to make him dig in his heels.

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