by Jules Witcover

In the oft-repeated threat of taking the country over a "fiscal cliff" by failing to reach a compromise on deep debt reduction, both parties in Congress have had to be concerned about public opinion as well as the dollar signs involved. If the worst happened, who would be blamed?

In the famed Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev similaly went eyeball-to-eyeball before the latter blinked. Fifty years later, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have been doing likewise in a much less lethal faceoff, and this time Boehner blinked.

In that earlier confrontation half a century ago, Kennedy won out by holding firm in his demand that Russian missiles be withdrawn from Cuba. Khrushchev finally complied, after a secret understanding that Kennedy would later take American missiles aimed at the Soviet Union out of Turkey.

This time around, Boehner didn't let matters get that far. He gambled that his House Republican majority would strengthen his bargaining hand with Obama by supporting his "Plan B" offer to have taxes raised only on millionaires. Instead, tea party loyalists and other unbending GOP tax cutters abandoned their leader, forcing him to retreat and at least temporarily pull out of the negotiations with the president.

The immediate result was a black eye for Boehner and reinforcement of the Republican image of obstructionism that Obama had been selling to the American people throughout his first term. But the outcome was hardly a victory for the president. He was left with the grim prospect of the country heading toward his second term amid dire warnings of a return to economic recession.

Boehner's mistake was in thinking enough House Republicans would buy into his political strategy of shifting the onus of failing to strike a compromise deal onto Obama. The speaker made his intent clear in offering his plan, saying "the president will have a decision to make. He can call on Senate Democrats to pass that bill or he can be responsible for the largest tax increase in history" -- the consequence of failing to reach a deal.

But too many House Republicans these days are too driven by ideology -- the GOP mantra of absolutely no tax increases in the world of tax-foe Grover Norquist -- to take into consideration the political consequences for their party of their recalcitrance. They risk not only the fiscal recovery and stability of the country, but also cementing the picture of their party as almost suicidally rigid.

Boehner, obviously shaken by the refusal of his House colleagues to go along with his strategy, tried feebly to recover the next morning. He took to television insisting he was not walking away from further negotiations with Obama, with only ten days left until year's end and the looming fiscal cliff.

His failed gamble, however, had already impaired any Republican bargaining position and encouraged Obama in his stiffer post-election posture, in sharp contrast to his conciliatory style throughout his first term. Nevertheless, it remains in the president's interest to resolve the stalemate, with some breathing space in public opinion to come to the rescue with minor concessions that might let Boehner to save face.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the whole fiscal fight should enable Obama to enter his second term with more of a head wind than anticipated in the days before his reelection. The latest Gallup Poll has shown his approval rate having risen to 56 percent, its highest level since the ninth month of his first year in the Oval Office, to 37 percent who disapprove.

Ever since the Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 congressional elections, their prime focus was to deny him reelection. Now, having failed, their core constituency remains determined to cut the size and role of government, while protecting America's richest from any higher tax burden.

With most members of Congress now fleeing Washington for home and a likely shortened Christimas break, the Boehner gamble seems a sizeable lump of coal in the country's holiday stocking, and particularly for Boehner and his party, so conspicuously mired by internal paralysis infecting all national politics.


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John Boehner's 'Plan B' Gamble | Politics

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