Jacob Heilbrunn

Boehner versus Cantor: A Coup in the GOP?

Both sides have much to lose. Each is profiting from the current system. Both sides are trying to curry favor with the public. But negotiations appear to be at an impasse until the last second.

So the negotiations have gone between the National Football League and the players over the past few months. Might they also serve as a model for President Obama and the House Republicans? Will the GOP assent to a deal at the last minute, averting a possible financial catastrophe? Or will it hang tough, reckoning that the public will side with it?

The debt ceiling vote itself has been transformed into a cliffhanger, but seldom has a more picayune issue generated more Sturm und Drang. It has become a potent proxy for the debate over America's fiscal future. As it drags on, it is also shedding a good deal of light on the probable political futures of John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Obama.

The most immediate story is the power struggle between Boehner and Cantor, which the latter appears to be winning. The young gun, Cantor, coauthor of a book by the same title, is standing up to the old reluctant sheriff, Boehner. The tanned Boehner is almost literally seasoned. He clearly wants to cut a deal with the White House, a deal that, in any normal era, would appear to be a bonanza for the GOP. But Cantor and his young hellions are resisting. They don't want even the appearance of a tax hike. According to the Los Angeles Times, tensions are rising:

"I don't think Boehner would want to serve in a foxhole anytime with Eric Cantor," said a Republican strategist and former leadership aide who asked not to be identified while commenting on an intraparty rivalry.

Meanwhile, Senator Orrin Hatch is fuming that the lower middle class and poor aren't paying enough in taxes and that it's the wealthy who shoulder the burden.

These disputes are allowing Obama to present himself as the great conciliator, offering a mixture of cuts in entitlement programs and tax hikes. The danger for the GOP is not insignificant. It may have created a new role for Obama as national steward. As Obama pivots toward the middle, he's clearly given up on—or is taking for granted—his left-wing base, which played a key role in getting him elected. Now he's lusting for the approbation of the much-touted independent voters, who looked askance at his health care program. Obama is once more wooing them. Until now, his overtures have been unrequited. But that could change.

If the deficit ceiling is not raised, there is a slim chance that the markets will take it in stride. But the chance of a cataclysm, as Boehner knows, is bigger. The real question is whether it would engulf the GOP or Obama or even both.