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Is It Time For John Boehner to Resign As Speaker?

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy should all resign from their leadership posts.

For all his admirable qualities and years of service, House Speaker John Boehner is simply not trusted by his own conference and not respected as a negotiating partner by President Obama or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. As a result, he can no longer be an effective Speaker or voice for Republicans in Washington and should resign the position to an individual who respects all factions of the House GOP conference, is trusted by each, and can be viewed as a tough and credible negotiating partner by Reid and Obama. Unfortunately, because of their roles in enabling Boehner’s fecklessness, neither Eric Cantor nor Kevin McCarthy are even remotely qualified for promotion or retention of their current responsibilities.

So how exactly did we get here?

The main reason for the current GOP predicament is a complete lack of trust in the current House GOP leadership team. Remember that the initial internal GOP fight that started the shutdown/default drama was over using the continuing resolution (CR) and potentially a government shutdown to defund Obamacare for a year, versus using the debt ceiling and potentially a government default to delay Obamacare for a year. Beltway conservatives favored the former because they felt the CR/shutdown posed fewer political risks and that defunding was the best policy option to prevent Obamacare’s implementation. The establishment types, including Boehner and Cantor, argued that the debt limit gave the GOP better leverage and that the polling for “delay” was much better than that for “defund.”

If those two different tactics seem remarkably similar, it’s because they are. So why the bloody fight over them? The battle erupted because conservatives did not trust Boehner and Cantor to actually fight on the debt limit. To many conservatives, the constant Boehner/Cantor strategy, regardless of the issue at hand, boils down to “the real battle is the next battle.” Surrender this fight, and we’ll promise to fight for real next time. Their proposed debt limit/delay strategy perfectly resembled that caricature. They won’t fight on the less risky battle (shutdown), so why should we trust them to fight on the really risky battle (default)?

That distrust, regardless of which side of the defund or delay argument you come down on, is the primary reason for the mess in which Republicans currently find themselves. Democrats stayed united because they trusted the strategy laid out for them by Reid and Obama. The GOP fracture was caused entirely by a lack of trust in its leadership.

The next factor responsible for the current mess is that Boehner, due in large part to completely preventable negotiating errors, is not viewed as a credible negotiating partner by either Obama or Reid. There are two reasons for Boehner’s lack of credibility.

First, he never took the time to determine what negotiators call the “walkaway value” of his conference. What is the final deal that they would accept? Granted, that is a very difficult value to agree on, especially when you have more than 200 individuals who think their solution is best and everyone else is an idiot. But that’s the Speaker’s job. When you are negotiating on behalf of other people, you cannot walk into a negotiation without knowing their walkaway value. And where were Cantor and McCarthy during all this? If Boehner thought he would be advantaged by staying above the fray, then Cantor and McCarthy — the whip whose sole job it is to count votes — should’ve been listening and whipping and cajoling on Boehner’s behalf. Their job is to support the Speaker, and every indication is that they completely failed to do so.

A great example of the need for this pre-negotiation knowledge was presented during a negotiations seminar I attended while in business school (this particular seminar was just a small portion of a semester-long class). A senior executive of a very large credit card company was invited to tell us about his experience negotiating partnership deals with retailers (e.g., a Cabela’s Visa card or a GM MasterCard). He told us about a negotiation he entered without getting the hard sign-off from his superiors. He negotiated what he thought was a great deal and had a handshake agreement with his counter party, only to have his bosses reject the deal. The executive told us that he made a huge mistake in never getting a hard sign-off from each of his bosses before making the offer.

So what happened? The credit card executive had to go tell the counter party that the deal was off. It destroyed the credit card executive’s credibility. The other side couldn’t negotiate with him in good faith anymore because they couldn’t trust that he spoke for the company. What happened if they agreed to another deal, only to have the rug pulled out from under them again? As a result of that snafu, prior to any future negotiation, the credit card executive always got his bosses in a room together, got everyone to agree on a walkaway value, and forced everyone to sign a piece of paper agreeing to that final agreed-upon value. The executive learned that initial buy-in from the parties you represent was every bit as important as your direct interactions with the party on the other side of the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, this was either a principle that Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy never fully understood, or it was a job they were incapable of doing. Boehner and his leadership team made the same mistake during the “fiscal cliff” debate in late 2012 — they incorrectly indicated to the world that they could deliver the votes for what was then dubbed as “Plan B” (that deal, which I supported at the time, was rejected). When it fell apart, Boehner’s credibility was destroyed and he no longer had any juice to negotiate a deal. Yesterday was another perfect example of the current leadership team’s total inability to gauge the temperature of their caucus:  GOP leaders cooked up another seemingly “final” offer, leaked it to a few reporters, and claimed that the GOP would back it, only to have the whole thing disintegrate within a matter of hours (note the time stamps):

It is difficult to read through those tweets and come to the conclusion that House GOP leaders knew what they were doing.

The next negotiating factor that eliminated any Boehner credibility in the eyes of Obama and Reid is Boehner’s terrible habit of offering unilateral concessions without getting anything in return from Reid or Obama. In order to explain why those actions were so problematic, we first need to define what was at stake. The object of the negotiation — the thing that nearly everybody wanted — was for the government to re-open and for default to be avoided. Democrats wanted a clean spending bill and a clean debt limit extension with nothing else attached. That was their dream deal. Republicans wanted any spending bill and debt limit to be coupled with some sort of full delay or defunding of Obamacare. That was their dream deal. Any deviation from either side’s dream deal is defined as a concession — it’s something they gave up in order to get to the object of the negotiation.

Boehner’s opening salvo, which was rejected in its entirety by the Senate, was a CR with a year-long defunding of Obamacare. Reid and Obama made no counter-offers. Boehner then began the process of offering unilateral concession after unilateral concession. A CR plus medical device tax repeal. A CR plus medical device delay, plus subsidy income verification (already the law, so this alone represented a huge concession), plus the Vitter amendment (also the law). Then a CR/debt limit plus medical device delay, plus Vitter but only for lawmakers and cabinet members — no staff. Then a CR/debt limit with just Vitter. And so on and so forth. Reid and Obama never budged:  give us a clean CR and a clean debt limit, no concessions.

The ramification of repeated unilateral concessions is that it removes any incentive for the counter party to engage in negotiations. If Obama and Reid can get Boehner to give things away for free, why on earth would they ever come to the table to negotiate? If they wait long enough, Boehner will just negotiate with himself until he unilaterally ends up offering their dream deal.

One of the cardinal rules of negotiating is that if you offer a concession that is not reciprocated, you have to walk away. If you walk into a car dealership and offer a deal that’s rejected without any counter being offered, you don’t keep unilaterally raising the price you’ll pay. Car salesmen have a word to describe a person who does that:  sucker. Don’t walk into a car dealership unless you’re prepared to walk out. And before you walk in, you had better know the walkaway price demanded by your spouse.

In short, Boehner’s constant negotiating foibles have eliminated his ability to be an effective negotiating partner with Obama and Reid. He lacks the trust of his caucus, he and his leadership team of Cantor and McCarthy are incapable of counting votes, and Obama and Reid don’t respect him as a negotiating partner.

As a result, he and his top leadership team of Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy should resign and make room for a fresh group of leaders who have the trust of their members and the credibility to go toe-to-toe with Obama and Reid leading up to the 2014 elections.

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