It’s nice to be reminded every now and again of how risky and futile it can be to predict what might happen in politics. Just this morning I speculated that maybe John Boehner would allow the government to be temporarily shut down over Planned Parenthood funding as a way of securing his own political position. A short time later, Boehner announced that he was vacating that political position of his own free will. I could try to save a little face by pointing out that there was apparently some divine intervention at play here, but the other way of looking at it is that God and John Boehner conspired to make me look like a dope.
Anyway, we’re now staring at the end of the John Boehner speakership, which will be remembered for its many unrealized promises. Obamacare, which was “repealed” in the House some 14,000 times since 2011, remains firmly in place. The Obamacare replacement legislation Boehner and his leadership team promised us many times over has, to date, not materialized. Immigration reform legislation spent months on the cusp of realization but never saw the light of day. On most major policy issues, the dynamic was predictable and disappointing: Boehner assured us that the House would do its job, and then paralysis would take over.
Instead of legislating, the House under John Boehner became a breeding ground for manufactured crises and political kamikaze missions. Much of his speakership was a bitter, grueling fight just to preserve the basic functions of government from a determined and implacable minority within his own caucus that would pick losing ideological fights and demand that the leadership embrace its extremist tactics. Boehner’s record at defusing these situations was decidedly mixed – there were times when he would stand up to the extremists, and at other points he buckled to pressure and gave them what they wanted. One government shutdown and two near-shutdowns later, he’s decided he’s had enough.
It’s tempting to lay all the blame for this toxic political situation on the hardline conservatives in the House, but Boehner ultimately made things worse for himself and for everyone else by stringing them along and making promises he couldn’t keep. He would talk tough about standing up to President Obama and reining in an out-of-control president, even though he was fully aware that he lacked any real power to do the sort of damage to Obama’s agenda that he promised. Boehner pursued this reflexively anti-Obama course because it was electorally beneficial and because it helped secure his own position, but it came at the expense of any real accomplishment.
But soon he’ll be gone, and the jockeying for his gavel has already begun. Conservatives will claim Boehner’s scalp and loudly demand that one of their own be installed as speaker. Ted Cruz, who made it his business to undermine Boehner’s authority in pursuit of his own extremist agenda, is already dancing on Boehner’s political grave and accusing him of being a sellout and a puppet of the Democrats. “The country will be better served with a strong conservative speaker,” Cruz told reporters.
And therein lies the problem. The idea that John Boehner is not “conservative” is utter nonsense. The reality is that he gave the unrealistic and politically self-destructive agenda of his party’s hard-right flank far more deference than it deserved, and he and the country suffered for it. But since he was unable to meet their maximalist demands and was forced to compromise at times, he’s being flensed as a RINO traitor. So really it doesn’t matter who succeeds Boehner. They’ll run into the same problems he did as the leader of political party that is actively hostile to the very idea of competent governance.