From now on, it’s the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah House.
The political world stopped for a moment when Speaker John Boehner broke into the jaunty old Disney tune — “My, oh my, what a wonderful day” — after a news conference during which he threw in the towel on the debt ceiling fight. He found himself trapped between the immovable object of Democrats determined they would never again let Republicans take the nation’s credit hostage and the irresistible force of a dysfunctional, crisis-addicted GOP majority of which he is the putative leader. Boehner decided to skip away in song.
Feb. 11, 2014, was, in fact, a wonderful day. It marked the end of a dismal experiment during which the right wing of the conservative movement did all it could to make the United States look like a country incapable of governing itself rationally. We were so caught up in our own nasty politics that we forgot we’re supposed to be a model for how democracy should work. There will be other episodes of foolishness, but the debt ceiling bomb has finally been defused.
Moreover, there were lessons here that should be applied from now on. The first is that refusing to negotiate over matters that should not be subject to negotiation in the first place is the sensible thing to do. President Obama learned this the hard way after the debilitating budget battle of 2011.
It’s true that both parties played political games around the debt ceiling in the past. But until our recent tea party turn, politicians always kept these symbolic skirmishes within safe limits. The 28 House Republicans who faced reality by voting to move on for another year sent a signal that they want to return to those prudent habits.
But this means that 199 Republicans voted to go over the cliff. Or, to be more precise, many pretended they were willing to take the leap to appease big conservative funders and organizations, knowing that a minority of their GOP colleagues and the Democrats would bail them out. These profiles in convenience included Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the Budget Committee, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who chairs the House Republican Conference.
This tells us something important: The House Republican majority now governs largely through gestures and is driven almost entirely by internal party fractiousness and narrow political imperatives. When Boehner tried to tie the debt ceiling vote to a popular proposal to restore modest cuts to military pensions, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., complained that he could not vote to raise the debt limit but also didn’t want to vote against the pension restoration.
It’s a perfect parable: Cotton, an Army veteran who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor this fall, felt a need to placate pro-spending and anti-spending interest groups at the same time and didn’t want Boehner to call his bluff. No wonder the speaker gave up on mollifying his caucus and, bless him, offered his ironic melody about all the sunshine coming his way.
Something else happened on Tuesday: Fully 193 of the 195 Democrats voting were prepared to shoulder the burden of hiking the debt ceiling. This vote, like so many before it, proved that there is a moderate governing majority in the House. It could work its will again and again if only Boehner were willing to put bills on the floor and give practically minded Republicans a chance join with Democrats to enact them.
This proposition deserves a test on immigration reform. Supporters should be thinking about a discharge petition to force Boehner’s hand — or maybe even to allow him to do what he’s said privately he’d like to do. If a majority of House members signed it, there could be a successful vote for the immigration bill the Senate has already passed.
The largest lesson is to those who make a living bemoaning Washington gridlock and demanding a return to old-fashioned, bipartisan, good-faith negotiations.
That would be very nice if we were dealing with the GOP of yesteryear. We’re not. The debt ceiling vote confirms what has long been obvious: Getting to yes on anything begins with an acknowledgement of how many members of Boehner’s caucus are ready to blow up our governing process and how many others feign a desire to do so to avoid political pain from their right.
The Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah House has become a cartoon festival of illusions that would embarrass Disney’s brilliant fantasists. Exposing the fantasies is the first step toward sunshine.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.