Opinion: Tax Standoff Caps John Boehner's Terrible Year

John Boehner answers questions on the payroll tax vote.

It was probably more fun for John Boehner being in the minority.  As leader of a disciplined, frustrated and increasingly emboldened party, he spent the first two years of the Obama Administration directing the Party of No.  Then, in a landslide election, the Republicans took the majority and he became the Speaker. Be careful what you wish for.

He began the year with two promises for the House of Representatives: a focus on job creation, and a requirement that every bill be submitted with a relevant passage from the Constitution.  In other words, he'd be the champion for working Americans and the leader in a national conversation about our foundational document.

Nearly 12 months later, far from being a champion, Congress has the lowest approval rating in history. The GOP has put forward no large plans for employment.  Instead of elevating the country's discourse, he has overseen a series of manufactured crises that have threatened government shutdown and, in a real precedent-setter, pushed us to the brink of default.  Instead offering lessons from history, he's made history with recalcitrance over the debt ceiling and the creation of an ultimately impotent Super Committee.

And now he's ending his first year rejecting a plan that would cut taxes for 160 million Americans, a plan his own party broadly supported in the Senate.  He's heading into a holiday break having dropped a big lump of coal in the American stocking.

The funny thing is that on a policy level, I have mixed feelings about the payroll tax break.  As much as I think it's smart to juice the economy by putting money in the hands of those who will spend it, I don't like shortchanging the revenue stream that sustains Social Security.  Furthermore, as much as I believe working families and the unemployed need a boost, the concept of a "tax holiday" only plays into the successful conservative notion that we should all hate taxes, rather than see them as an investment in this country we share.

But this isn't really a debate about that policy. If it were, you wouldn't have Republicans in one house unanimously pulling one way and their kin in the other house overwhelming pulling the other. When there's that sort of split, it's more about the politics, than the substance, of the matter. In this case, it's about the Tea Party approach to governing: A philosophy that would rather wage all-out war than engage in the delicate art of compromise, that is more interested in making a point than making improvements in people's lives, and that is proved right when government fails to work.

So while most Washington-watchers wring their hands and wonder how this will get resolved, it's not clear the Tea Party members - who dominate the GOP House Caucus and whose support Boehner needs to remain Speaker - actually view this as a problem. They can go back to their district and boast they stood their ground. While Boehner was willing to threaten a government shut-down, they might have welcomed it.  While he went to the edge of default, they were buckled in, helmeted and ready to plunge over.

Boehner must be realizing now that what keeps his caucus happy is very different than what keeps voters back home happy.  He doesn't want to explain why he couldn't deliver a Christmas miracle.  But he can't say no to the Tea Party of No.

So maybe Congressional wrangling works this out, or maybe it doesn't.  And maybe, in 11 months, the Tea Party is handed an electoral defeat, and Boehner gets what he secretly wants: To be the leader of the minority again, where he knew what he was doing.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."