From the moment he first picked up the Speaker's gavel, the choice before John Boehner was a simple one. He could betray the far-right Tea Party extremists whose support for him was always tenuous or he could betray his country. When it came to his party's debt ceiling blackmail--which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged Republicans' held "hostage"--Boehner's choice of America's future over his own should have been an easy one.
We know this because John Boehner told us so.
Just days after the GOP's overwhelming triumph in the 2010 midterm elections, the Wall Street Journal ("Boehner Warns GOP on Debt Ceiling") reported the future House Speaker was preparing the radical right-wingers in his caucus for the need--and their duty--to increase Uncle Sam's borrowing authority as Congress had done 39 times since 1980:
"I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.
"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."
As it turns out, Speaker Boehner and Republican leaders were very well acquainted with those obligations. After all, Ronald Reagan signed 17 debt limit hikes while he was tripling the national debt. President George W. Bush signed seven more as he nearly doubled again, increases need to pay the bills from his funded wars, tax cuts, Medicare drug program and more. Along with Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, John Boehner voted for all of it.
Of course, Boehner had no alternative. It wasn't just that during the Bush years, as Utah Senator Orrin Hatch would later admit, "It was standard practice not to pay for things." The alternative--a sovereign default by the United States after a failure to increase the debt ceiling--was too horrible to contemplate. As Speaker Boehner put it in early 2011:
"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."
That wasn't Boehner's only admission. On more than occasion, Speaker Boehner had to admit the obvious. The U.S. debt ceiling would have to be raised multiple times even if the draconian Paul Ryan budget 95 percent of Congressional Republicans voted for three years in a row became law. As Reuters recounted in April 2011, Speaker Boehner told a gathering of Buckeye state Tea Partiers the debt roof would have to be raised soon - and not for the last time:
The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.
One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."
"And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.
Nevertheless, Speaker Boehner had a warning for President Obama that same spring. "The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner boasted, "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill." Not, that is, unless Barack Obama became a Republican like George W. Bush, who received a "clean," no strings attached $800 billion debt limit hike from John Boehner and friends in 2004.
In May 2012, Speaker Boehner once again owned up to the truth the "Default Deniers" of his own party were trying to hide. Boehner acknowledged that the Paul Ryan budget almost all Republicans backed would violate "my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase":
"Yeah, the big bad House Republican budget that would just gut everything under the sun, according to my friends across the aisle, would still require a $5 trillion increase in the debt ceiling over the next 10 years. Why? Because of the great big demographic bubble -- baby boomers like me, that are going to retire and continue to retire for the next 20-25 years. It's a big challenge."
But by March of 2013, John Boehner had to confirm another inconvenient truth. After reducing the next decade's debt forecast by $2.5 trillion during the previous two years, the near and mid-term debt picture for the United States had improved dramatically. As Boehner put it, "We have no immediate debt crisis."
And still John Boehner chose his Speakership over the American people. As Ted Cruz and the Tea Party wing of his party demanded a government shutdown and a default if Obamacare wasn't defunded, Boehner acquiesced. With Democratic votes in the House, Boehner could have ended a crisis he helped manufacture. In January, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham explained the stakes to come:
"If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic."
But by this week, Senator Graham had a different message as Congressional Republicans faced defeat over their debt ceiling brinksmanship:
"Here's what I am worried about: a deal coming out of the Senate that a majority of Republicans can't vote for in the House, that really does compromise Speaker Boehner's leadership. And after all this mess is over, do we want to compromise John Boehner as leader of the House? I don't think so."
That, with the future of the American economy at stake.
Regardless, John Boehner is beyond saving now. The Beltway consensus is that Speaker Boehner's defeat is "a disaster" and "humiliating." What the Wall Street Journal called a "comedy of political errors" could only be ended thanks to the Democratic minority in the House. And that means that Republican hard-liners will be calling John Boehner a traitor, a back-stabber, a Benedict Arnold and worse.
But the entire crisis could have been avoided if John Boehner had simply stood up to his own party, even at the cost of his speakership. Instead, Boehner came within hours of single-handedly dooming the U.S. economy--and tens of millions of Americans--by letting the default he decried nearly come to pass. In that case, John Boehner's name would have lived in infamy alongside Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and other legendary American villains who betrayed their nation and put its future at risk.