Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner was his usual weepy self as Pope Francis spoke to a joint meeting of Congress. Boehner, a Catholic, had invited three popes to address Congress, and Francis finally took him up on the offer—a first in U.S. history. So it wasn't that surprising to see Boehner, in the background, leaking like a water faucet in disrepair. Only now, we can see those tears in a different light, as Boehner announced his stunning resignation from Congress, effective at the end of October.
There's little doubt that the proximal cause of Boehner leaving is the GOP's internal fight over whether to do another government shutdown—this time, aimed at defunding Planned Parenthood, an organization that (at 45 percent) is currently viewed about three more favorably than Congress.
But it's equally clear the push to oust Boehner has bubbling for some time, though characteristically not with much method or discipline. In late July, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows surprised everyone with a motion to vacate the chair, which Politico described as “an extraordinarily rare procedural move that represents the most serious expression of opposition to Boehner’s speakership,” going on to note:
GOP leaders were taken completely by surprise. Meadows, a second-term Republican, hadn’t even asked for a meeting with Boehner or other top Republicans to air his gripes.
Boehner had faced a challenge to his leadership before, but not in his most recent election. So the ebbs and flows of opposition have remained relatively opaque, aided by a generally incurious press. Rachel Maddow represents a distinctly discordant view, having repeatedly run segments arguing that “John Boehner is bad at his job.” But it can be argued that Maddow is wrong to blame Boehner for problems that are much bigger than the office he holds, or even the GOP House caucus.
Indeed, viewed through an institutional lens, Boehner's troubles go back much further, encompassing the all three of his GOP predecessors. In 1998, Newt Gingrich resigned as Speaker, and from Congress, after the GOP lost seats in mid-term elections after intensely pursuing a Clinton impeachment agenda. Just days after the election, CNN reported, “Faced with a brewing rebellion within the Republican Party over the disappointing midterm election, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the stunning decision Friday to step down not just from the speakership but also from Congress.”
Gingrich's replacement, Louisiana's Bob Livingston, resigned just over a month later [video], before even taking office, after his own extra-marital affairs were revealed by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Amazingly, Livingston, who had been part of Gingrich's leadership team devoted to hounding Clinton from office, said in his remarks, “I want so very much to pacify and cool our raging tempers and return to an era when differences were confined to the debate, and not a personal attack or assassination of character.”
Livingston's deliberately low-key successor, Dennis Hastert, had some troubles in office, but managed to survive with dignity and reputation reasonably intact through eight years of leadership—the longest tenure ever for a Republican—until Democrats retook the House in the 2006 mid-terms. It was only this year that he was criminally charged for lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements, reportedly as part of an attempt to conceal sexual misconduct with a minor, which in turn raised new doubts about his handling of similar problems in the Mark Foley affair, just prior to the 2006 election.
At one level, this record speaks to a lack of personal morality—a key GOP hobby horse for at least the past half century, if not virtually forever. But more deeply, it highlights the inherent dangers stirred up by running political campaigns as moral crusades, which simply cannot be sustained as a means of government in a secular, pluralistic system. The attempt to demonize Planned Parenthood as evil incarnate involves spectacular levels of fraud and deception. Such deception may be sustainable within the bubble of the GOP base, driving the latest mania which appears to have exhausted Boehner's endurance, but it cannot prevail in the polity at large, unless the elite media are fully on board—as they were in attacking ACORN, or selling the Iraq War—but not for this fight.
Thus, Boehner bows out as an institutional sacrificial lamb. But the only question is: for what? His office offered the following:
Speaker Boehner believes that the first job of any Speaker is to protect this institution and, as we saw yesterday with the Holy Father, it is the one thing that unites and inspires us all.
The Speaker's plan was to serve only through the end of last year. Leader Cantor's loss in his primary changed that calculation.
The Speaker believes putting members through prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution.
He is proud of what this majority has accomplished, and his Speakership, but for the good of the Republican Conference and the institution, he will resign the Speakership and his seat in Congress, effective October 30.
So Boehner is protecting the institution of the House, which he somehow confuses with the Pope? Even though the Pope did not unite and inspire all of Boehner's caucus (typically, only the Democrats were united). The Catholic back-bencher who boycotted the Pope to show his displease with the Pope's concern over global warming is decidedly out of step with American Catholics, but he's much more in tune with Boehner's caucus than Boehner himself is—and that is the root of Boehner's problem.
Boehner is presiding over a House divided—and sub-divided—against itself, and his real failure is simply to recognize that fact and face up to it, however much it might have required a “profile in courage.” It would have actually done his own party a world of good. He could have passed the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill, if only he'd been willing to do so with votes from both parties, rather than from Republicans alone. On the one hand, he gives lip-service to bipartisanship and responsible leadership, but on the other hand, he has repeatedly failed to act in that way. So now, because of his failure, immigration is not an issue Republicans have helped deal with, it's become the launching pad of Donald Trump's campaign, which in turn has unleashed a whole new army of demons for the GOP to wrestle with in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.
There may be little doubt that if Boehner had passed immigration reform, it would have cost him his speakership. But he's lost his speakership anyway, and what does he have to show for it? Only the record of having secured a visit from the Pope—which surely heart warming, and tear-jerking, and all. But if one thinks just for a moment about actually doing anything based on what Pope Francis had to say, then there's a whole different reason for Boehner's tears to start flowing again.
And those tears, sadly, would only be the beginning. Because the history of failed GOP speakerships touched on above is only an aspect of the deeper problem, which goes to the very nature of the party itself. The GOP was born from the ashes of the old Whig Party, but it was the only, or even the first party to so emerge. Before the GOP rose to prominence, the virulently anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-nothings,” were the most promising party to replace the Whigs. They won 51 House seat in 1854, while the Whigs were still on their last legs, before being eclipsed by the Republicans in 1856. When the Whigs collapsed, their remnants could have gone either way. One direction was anti-immigrant, the other was anti-slavery—although fretfully at first.
But the modern GOP has spent the last five decades courting those sentimentally opposed to its anti-slavery origins as “the Party of Lincoln,” and the last 10 years, at least, reviving the anti-immigrant sentiments on which the Know-nothings were founded. As confused as Boehner may be about his role, his responsibilities, his place in the order of things, it is only a small part of the much larger confusion that the GOP as a whole has been wallowing in for years—and, sadly, dragging the rest of America along with it.
The more things change, as Boehner steps down, the more we should expect them to stay the same—only worse. Perhaps even much, much worse. There will be plenty more tears to come.