Debt-limit talks: What Obama, Boehner, and McConnell mean when they call for "leadership."

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 13 2011 6:44 PM

Take Me to Your Leader

The debt-limit talks show Washington's rhetoric to be even more empty than usual.

Mitch McConnell. Click image to expand.
Mitch McConnell

In the spirit of reducing waste, fraud and abuse in Washington, I suggest a drastic cut in the number of words used by any leader in Washington calling on any other leader in Washington to show leadership. Instead of endless vague generalities, they should just say: Give me what I want.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Along with the debate over the debt ceiling, official Washington is also offering Americans a series of lectures on the subject of leadership. In their negotiations, which broke off last weekend, House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama were both showing a version of it. The two men struggled to resolve their differences—giving a little, assuming political risk, acting in good faith. One of the Washington clichés is that in tough deals, everyone has to hold hands and jump. By this standard, the two men were leading. Obama may have held Boehner's hand for longer than a handshake but shorter than a street crossing.

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And look at the trouble it caused him. For the last few days, Boehner has been at pains to stamp out the idea that he was ever interested in any kind of deal that would raise taxes. That's not exactly so: He was at least notionally in favor of a deal that would raise taxes on some people in exchange for lowering them for other people. Still, in a party where supporting any kind of tax increase is deadly, Boehner has had to reassert his fortitude. (In 1990, when George H.W. Bush agreed to tax increases to get a budget deal, the commitment to shared sacrifice was called "leadership." It also killed him with his party.)

Boehner's experience points to the difficulties of leading in public: If the details get out before you've come to an agreement with your adversary, you have to jump before you've taken the other guy's hand. At the same time, "leading in public" is the only definition of leadership some people will allow. If a president or party leader isn't trussed up in a powder wig and crossing the Delaware, he's not leading. So Republicans are demanding that Obama put forward a specific plan on paper for all to see. Had Boehner done that when he and Obama started noodling a solution, they never would have gotten as far as they did.

Obama and his advisers, meanwhile, like the strong, silent type—except when they don't. David Axelrod poked Mitt Romney for not making a flamboyant act of self-destruction by speaking up in the current debate: "Anyone heard from Mitt Romney lately? Where is he on McConnell plan? On the debt talks? On the impact of a default? Why so quiet?" Of course, Romney is not an elected official, and will not be required to vote on anything. Yet Romney is not living up to his campaign's usual standard, which is to let no Washington development pass without releasing a campaign video knocking Obama's leadership.

To prove just how committed Boehner is against tax cuts, his office issued a press release citing a poll that says Americans want an increase in the debt limit only if it is accompanied by spending reductions and a promise to reduce the deficit. It also cites a poll that says Americans are against across-the-board tax increases. "Republicans," it declares, "are standing with the American people."

But isn't leadership doing "what's right," no matter what the polls say? After all, that's what George Bush said. It's what Obama said during the debate over health-care reform (about which the polls remain lukewarm). Republicans said then that Obama was fundamentally out of step with the public. His job was to be in step.

The problem with this definition of leadership is that it leads to contortions like the one in Boehner's press release. The first poll is by a GOP polling firm. In a recent poll by the generally more respected Gallup organization, only 20 percent of respondents support the GOP position of deficit reduction through spending cuts only. Among Republicans, this position wins only 26 percent support. The second poll is a nearly meaningless one from U.S. News and World Report that asks people whether they would like their taxes raised. In the current debate, that's never been a question on the table. When you ask people about a specific increase that is on the table—such as allowing rates to increase for those who make more than $250,000 a year—the public is wildly for it. It has 72 percent approval, according to a recent New York Times poll. But Boehner is against that, which, by the standard of his own press release, is not standing with the American people and therefore not leadership.

Then again, in this instance, maybe Boehner is subscribing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's view of leadership. McConnell is not anxious to join Boehner and Obama's negotiations. On Tuesday he offered a Plan B that would raise the debt limit without any deal on larger issues like spending or taxes. It offers a potential back door for negotiators who may not be able to reach an agreement before the Aug. 2 deadline for default. Now that's leadership, you might say: McConnell offended his party's most vocal constituents—Tea Party activists opposed to a "clean" vote on the debt ceiling alone—in order to get a deal. McConnell is willing to look cravenly political to achieve an end, in this case avoiding default.

The only slight problem is that the door may be blocked. Members of the House who support the Tea Party will not countenance the McConnell plan. It may be doomed.

Boehner's attempt to show leadership—negotiating with Obama—failed, in part, because his caucus wouldn't go along with him. McConnell's attempt to show leadership—not negotiating with Obama—will likely fail for the same reason. House and Senate leaders are captive to the wishes of their most ardent constituents. Is that "leading from behind," as the Obama team calls it, or is that what Republicans derisively label as "followership"? If we only had a leader to tell us.

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