All this year, House Speaker John Boehner has been taking criticism from all quarters.
He is a squish selling out to the Obama administration and the Democrats, many conservatives charged when he engineered bipartisan (mostly Democratic) approval of higher tax rates on high earners rather than go over the fiscal cliff. He is a radical hostage-taking Confederate-sympathizing terrorist, cried Democrats when he led House Republicans to pass a bill refunding the government but defunding Obamacare. He is irresponsible and obdurate, cried high-minded supporters of a grand bargain including entitlement reform, because he resolutely refused to negotiate with President Obama.
He is a squish selling out — you know the rest — yelled some conservatives last week when he rallied votes, successfully, for the bipartisan budget agreement hammered out by House and Senate Budget Chairmen Paul Ryan and Patty Murray.
Undoubtedly, some of these criticisms were sincere. Rational arguments could be and sometimes were made in their support. On occasion, Boehner seemed to be stumbling from one stance to something like its opposite. But I would argue that the cumulative result, in terms of budget, spending and tax policy, is far more favorable for Republicans and conservatives than they had any right to anticipate given the correlation of political forces after the November 2012 election.
Obama had just become only the 17th man to be reelected president in 220 years. (I'm counting Grover Cleveland, who was beaten for re-election in 1888 and came back to win a rematch four years later.) Democrats had, against considerable odds and with the incalculably valuable aid of some hapless Republican nominees, not only held on to their majority in the Senate, but had increased it from 53-47 to 55-45.
Boehner's House Republicans had lost only eight seats. But Republican candidates had actually won fewer popular votes than Democrats. (Two-thirds of that margin came from eight California districts where, thanks to that state's new law, there were no Republican nominees.)
In a House where there had been little bipartisanship in recent years, that meant that Boehner had to rally 218 of the 234 Republican members in order to pass legislation if Democrats were opposed. A defection by 17 Republicans would cut Boehner's leverage down toward zero. And many of these Republicans were of a mind to oppose anything they thought would accommodate the Obama Democrats.
Boehner could not count on favorable press coverage — or even much coverage at all, except when things went sour. His own gifts do not include the smooth articulateness that goes over well on television.
Given all that, and taking into account legislation passed, Boehner has had impressive policy success on budget, spending and tax issues. He has achieved that, on occasion, by tactical surrender. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert wouldn't allow a bill on the floor that wasn't supported by a majority of Republican members. Boehner broke the so-called Hastert rule in early January in the fiscal cliff crisis when he allowed a mostly Democratic majority to effectively raise tax rates on high earners. The alternative was raising taxes on everyone.
What's amazing here is that the high-bracket increases were not enacted until the fifth year of Obama's presidency.
Two months later, Boehner surprised Obama by accepting the sequester cuts. Democrats thought he would negotiate to increase defense spending. But few House Republicans cared enough about defense to agree to Democrats' demands for tax increases. Boehner read this mood accurately and extracted from it a major policy success. The sequester has held discretionary spending far below levels that the Senate and White House Democrats want.
In October, Boehner reluctantly agreed to a bill funding the government but defunding Obamacare. Enough Republicans insisted they wouldn't vote for the former without the latter. But the speaker was quick to climb down when polls showed Republicans slumping with voters — and to yield the spotlight to the ragged Obamacare rollout. In the process, he won the trust of most Republican members.
That trust was essential to passage, Thursday, of the budget bill, which tweaks the sequester, assuaging appropriators who want more leeway and hawks who want more defense spending. It institutes some small but probably permanent entitlement cuts and likely rules out another politically damaging government shutdown.
On policy, it's hard to see how Boehner could have accomplished more this year. And on politics, he has positioned his often obstreperous members well for 2014.
(Syndicated columnist Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.)