John Boehner speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. (photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
29 September 15
The mainstream interpretation: John Boehner’s forced resignation as the Speaker of the House gives him too much credit.
he mainstream reaction to the forced resignation of John Boehner as the Speaker of the House has been a kind of weary admiration. He fought the good fight against the extremists in his Republican caucus, the narrative goes, but his solid Midwestern virtues (he’s from Ohio) were ultimately no contest for the extremism of the Tea Party.
This interpretation is far too generous to Boehner, whose failures, political and substantive, were due mostly to cowardice. The tragedy of Boehner is that he could have been a great Speaker, even on his own terms, but instead his legacy is one of almost complete failure.
Boehner long made it clear that he was a dedicated party man, who believed that what was good for the G.O.P. was good for the country as well. This is how the issue of comprehensive immigration reform came to be the true crucible of his speakership. Following President Obama’s reëlection, in 2012, it was clear that Republicans had to try to appeal to Hispanic voters. In March of 2013, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a report saying that the Party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” In short order, many Republicans in the Senate, including such prominent figures as John McCain and Marco Rubio, did just that, and a bill which included a path to citizenship for a majority of undocumented immigrants passed by a vote of sixty-eight to thirty-two.
Boehner also supported immigration reform, at least in its broad outlines—because he correctly saw that it was good for both his party and his country. And there was no doubt that the reform bill could pass the House, with the support of most Democrats and a substantial number of Republicans as well. But Boehner’s Tea Party colleagues in the House opposed immigration reform. So the choice for Boehner, who controlled the House floor, was clear: pass a historic bill that would be good for the Republicans and for the republic, or appease the extremist elements in his party in hopes of hanging on to his position as Speaker.
Boehner caved, refusing to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and he suffered the fate of all those who give in to bullies; he was bullied some more. This year, the fight was over the highway bill, another piece of popular legislation that Boehner himself and a majority of the House (as well as the Senate and the President) supported—as well they might, given that maintenance of roads and bridges represents some of the basic work of government. But again the Tea Party intimidated Boehner into keeping the bill off the floor, depriving the Speaker of another major accomplishment.
Boehner adopted an extreme version of the so-called Hastert rule, named for his predecessor as Speaker, Dennis Hastert, who is now under indictment for alleged financial crimes connected to blackmail payments (he has pleaded not guilty). The Hastert rule holds that the Speaker should never allow a vote on a bill unless it’s supported by a majority of the Republican caucus. But Boehner’s approach was to keep bills off the floor that were opposed by a minority of Republicans—the Tea Party caucus, which only numbers about fifty—effectively giving them a veto over the work of the House. Nothing came to the floor without their say-so, so that meant that nothing much came to the floor except for symbolic exercises like votes to repeal Obamacare or to defund Planned Parenthood.
When Boehner announced his impending departure, he expressed pride that he had kept the government open (after a sixteen-day shutdown in 2013) and raised the debt limit. This, to paraphrase a famous Republican, reflects the soft bigotry of low expectations. Keeping the government open and paying its debts are the minimal undertakings of an elected body, not legislative triumphs. But Boehner could point to almost nothing else that happened on his watch, because the Tea Party would tolerate nothing else.
And what did Boehner’s cowardice in the face of the Tea Party stalwarts get him? They forced him out anyway. Boehner built his career around keeping his job, and he still failed. If Boehner had allowed the passage of immigration reform, it’s entirely possible that the Tea Party would have rebelled and evicted him—but at least he would have had a substantial accomplishment to his credit. Instead, Boehner tried nothing, accomplished nothing, and lost his job anyway. It’s the legacy he deserves.