On this Sunday, the national news outlets are all reflecting on U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who announced Friday he’s bowing out of Congress in one month’s time.
Boehner’s decision to call it quits came after years of fighting a two-front war, against President Obama on the one hand and against restive conservative activists within his own GOP on the other. The cozy trenches of partisan battle were one thing — bunkering down for years of attrition against Bill Clinton worked just fine for Speaker Newt Gingrich in the ’90s — but the chaotic guerrilla scramble within the Republican grassroots was another matter. To the Tea Party faithful, Boehner, simply by being willing to pass a federal budget at all, had become a figure as venal and contemptible as any Congressional Democrat.
Today, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” the Ohio Republican had strong words for members within his caucus who “whipped people into a frenzy believing they could accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen”:
“Absolutely they’re unrealistic. … The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done,” Boehner said.
Note that Boehner condemns the strategy and message of his antagonists, not their ideology. As several commentators have emphasized, the fight between the Speaker and GOP insurgents isn’t over issues at all — Boehner’s politics are conservative by any measure — but essentially whether governance itself is possible in such a political environment. Boehner’s resignation doesn’t give reason for optimism, says Matthew Yglesias at Vox:
The broader context is that Boehner has spent his years in office caught up in a partisan and institutional dynamic that he ultimately couldn’t break out of, even as he proved unusually adept at controlling it. His departure will do nothing to alleviate the cycle of unrealistic conservative demands leading to crisis at the highest level of government, and the fact that the most experienced practitioner of the cat-herding required to govern in this environment will soon be gone means that serious problems at least could be on the way this winter.
Conservative grassroots activists have repeatedly pressed Boehner to endorse high-stakes gambles to try to force the Obama administration to make policy concessions that Congress lacks the constitutional authority to enact on its own. Boehner has repeatedly tried to push in the direction of caution, preferring to defer potentially unpopular conflicts and focus on trying to win elections. Many conservatives see this as a lack of principle or commitment, while most moderate-to-liberal observers think Boehner is merely being practical. But the result was that Boehner’s speakership was unusually divided between his duties as speaker of the House, a figure who’s supposed to keep American governance on a prudent course, and his role as leader of the Republican Party.
David Weigel at the Washington Post frames the news in the context of demise of the presidential campaigns of two other GOP favorites, governors Scott Walker and Rick Perry. “Boehner’s departure was the third, and hardest, in a series of establishment body blows,” he writes:
[S]ome Republicans say that a polarized media and political debate have left voters confused. “When I go home and I tell people what we’ve done, they have no idea,” said Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.). “There’s not a lot of attention paid to what the House of Representatives has accomplished. People get their media in very different ways now. They feel that there’s inaction in Washington.”
Those same voters are gravitating to the outsiders, who assure them that they’re right — that Washington is beyond saving. In a current average of New Hampshire polls, Fiorina has surged into third place, behind only Trump and Carson.
Of course, there’s the fact that Boehner himself was as complicit as anyone in establishing obstructionism as his party’s first priority in office. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie puts it, the Speaker was “devoted by his own revolution.” Aside from the obvious Democratic schadenfreude, though, the more interesting point is the political miscalculation entailed by GOP Congressional leaders in so shamelessly pandering to party zealots. Referring to the electoral wave that returned Republicans to power in the House in 2010, Norm Ornstein at the Atlantic writes:
The Young Guns had assumed that once the new lawmakers came to Washington, they could co-opt them in the interest of keeping their majority status. That was not to be. The majority that populism had wrought and House Republican leaders had exploited instead created a solid cadre of members who pushed the leaders away from realism and pragmatic compromise, abetted by the continuing drumbeat from right-wing media figures and their acolytes. Another huge election victory in 2014, which included recapturing the Senate, emboldened the radicals—the government shutdown they had pushed in 2013 did not cost them at the polls. But it left party leaders in both houses realizing that now, with Republicans controlling all of Congress, the need to show responsibility, no longer playing games with shutdowns or debt limits, was even greater. The growing strength of populist radicals resulted in the ironic primary defeat of the head Young Gun, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, by Tea Partyite Dave Brat.
Ornstein also reflects on the larger institutional significance of Boehner’s departure as a sign of the greatly diminished power of the speakership itself. The National Review’s Kevin Williamson takes this view a step further, reading it as a milestone in the decline of the legislative branch and the rise of an autocratic executive. It’s worth a read, despite containing plenty to disagree with:
The plot of the Shakespearean succession drama is fixed as the stars: The entertainment wing of the conservative movement prepares to rain brimstone upon Republican whip Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive front-runner among House leaders, or Paul Ryan, a conservative hero until the day before yesterday now cast into the outer darkness for various heresies related to his being an elected lawmaker rather than the host of a radio program. Expect Louie Gohmert or another conservative standard-bearer to shine for a moment before opinion settles on some disappointment or another, and expect the vast majority of the American electorate to go on not knowing who the speaker is or what he does regardless of who is elected.