“The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done…We have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.”
John Boehner on Face the Nation.
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It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for John Boehner who served notice last week that he’ll step down in a few weeks from what used to be the second most powerful job in Washington.
Boehner always seemed ill cast in the role of shrill partisan. By most accounts Boehner actually thought, unlike the 40 or 50 ultra-right wingers in his caucus that members of Congress are sent to Washington legislate.
You remember legislating? Stuff like passing an annual budget – the fundamental business of the legislative branch – to actually fund the government. Rather Boehner’s House has lurched from one “continuing resolution” to another, from one government shutdown over the latest nutty cause or the latest spiteful desire to put the president in his place.
Boehner’s House, with the largest Republican majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, can’t pass a budget, but did vote, unsuccessfully of course, to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. You get the feeling that Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House has been akin to the frisky dog that chased the car and caught it. Once Boehner grabbed the gavel from Nancy Pelosi he was mostly focused on trying to keep it by placating the reactionaries in his own party. But placating is not leading and Boehner will ultimately be remembered, I suspect, as a political non-entity from Ohio who somehow became an ineffective, indeed disastrous non-leader.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein has it right that Boehner and other Republicans who might actually like to engaging in using their majority to govern have been caught between the angry forces of the grassroots and political reality.
“It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently,” Ornstein writes in The Atlantic.
“The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like piñatas.”
In other words, Boehner’s demise has been building steadily since the day he first gripped the big gavel and, while a certain sympathy for the soon-to-be former Speaker is in order, it’s also worth nothing that he – and other Republicans who know better – generally went along with the increasingly strident agenda of their most angry brethren.
The silliness of Donald Trump completely nonsensical agenda – read the transcript of his recent ’60 Minutes’ interview or try to make sense of his crazy tax plan – didn’t spring, Zeus-like, from his orange head.
Like Trump, Ted Cruz, who Boehner now calls “a jackass,” is a product of the anger and irrationality that many Republican “leaders” allowed to fester among the grassroots, the modern descendants of the “Movement Conservatives,” the Goldwaterites and John Birchers who 50 years ago steered the Grand Old Party off a grand old cliff.
The process that led to John Boehner’s decision to quit was actually set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama’s first day in office – when a core group of radical Republicans met in the back room of a D.C. steakhouse and decided that their guiding principle would be implacable opposition to everything that the new president proposed.
“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE.
Among those in attendance at this pivotal meeting: Senate power brokers and Tea Party darlings Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.
McCarthy, of course, is the odds on favorite to replace Boehner as speaker and Ryan, the only other member of that group still in Congress, perhaps very wisely decided not to seek the top job in the House. The liberal writer David Corn quips that even Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s fictional, nasty and scheming congressman in the series “House of Cards,” would take a pass on the job of succeeding John Boehner.
The slash and burn strategy hatched by the Republican anti-Obama caucus in January 2009 worked like a charm to create Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but at what cost? Well, for starters it cost Boehner his job and helped fuel the anger that has given the Republican Party a clownish real estate developer as its front runner and – I can’t believe I’m writing this – quite possibly its presidential candidate.
One wonders how the fortunes of the country and the GOP might be different had Speaker Boehner back in January 2009 asserted himself against the “no on everything all the time” caucus in his own party. What if Boehner, the golfer who likes to make a deal, had sought a politics of substance and collaboration with the new president? What might have been different if Boehner, the insider who had once worked with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” had called out the “false prophets” in his own party from day one?
We’ll never know how things might have been different had Congressional Republicans decided to legislate around substance rather than agitate the grassroots through anger. What might have happened if Boehner had reached for a middle ground on health care, the stimulus and so much else rather than buying into the Tea Party mantra that the only way to deal with Obama was to consider him an unworthy pretender?
This much is certain: despite the hard right’s best efforts Obama’s agenda has mostly survived and Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans are tossing and turning at night thinking about a substance free demagogue like Trump or Cruz, both products of the GOP base that loathes Boehner and his Senate counterpart McConnell nearly as much as it hates Obama, leading their party into the next presidential election.
Leadership requires, after all, setting real expectations and occasionally calling a halt to the politics of constantly whipping up a fact free frenzy.
In the end John Boehner will take his permanent tan, his cigarettes, his Merlot and his golf clubs off to a K Street lobby shop and Kevin McCarthy or some other poor soul will be left to try and clean up the mess he has left behind. In order to get the job now, of course, McCarthy must promise to give the radicals in his caucus even more deference. Ironically, Boehner’s finest moment of leadership may have been his decision to quit and at least temporarily end the threat of yet another government shutdown.
But every sixth grader knows you can’t endlessly appease unreasonable bullies. You have to beat them. The political reality of John Boehner is that he couldn’t figure out how to win – and ultimately how to govern. His only answer, and even then short term, was to quit.
As Norm Ornstein say, “In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster” and that, unfortunately, will be Speaker Boehner’s legacy.
It is said that without leadership the people perish. John Boehner has now given that old notion a new twist: Without leadership the leaders perish, too.