Is there nothing Pope Francis can't get done?
The pontiff has already been hailed for his key role in the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States, and now he can take credit for an equally dramatic—though, if we're being honest, less important—development in American politics: John Boehner's sudden resignation as Speaker of the House.
Boehner, a devout Catholic, reportedly made the final decision to step down on Thursday night, after Francis' visit to Capitol Hill. According to CNN, he told his fellow Republicans that it was a "crystallizing moment."
It's easy to see why that would be. Boehner's tenure as speaker has consisted of one disaster after another. After you've hung out with the pope, what's the point of sticking it out? Another job well done, Your Holiness!
Of course, more earthly matters were really at the heart of Boehner's move. He can now avoid presiding over yet another one of the absurd struggles with the far-right of his party that have been a continual feature of his tenure. The fight this time is as stupid as ever. Lots of House Republicans really want to defund Planned Parenthood -- an organization more popular than every major political institution in the U.S. -- and they want to do it at whatever cost, even if that means shutting down the government. American politics is at such a low point that not wanting to shut down the federal government is seen as some sort of moderate position, but that is where Boehner found himself. Rather than replay a drama that he's lived through time after time, he threw in the towel.
Boehner's time in the hot seat will not be looked back on with any fondness. In fact, it's hard to see him as anything but a massive failure. He found himself wholly incapable of controlling his caucus. He accomplished virtually nothing of note. He showed no aptitude for managing the media. His biggest achievements were driving the government repeatedly into a ditch, raising oodles of cash, and keeping Washington's wine and tobacco merchants in business. He was the least-popular speaker in three decades.
Boehner can't take all of the blame. He became speaker during a time when the internal mechanics of the American political system had already ground to a halt. And they show no signs of restarting any time soon. Congress is clearly incapable of functioning in its current state. That's somewhat beyond Boehner's control. So was the Tea Party movement, which cheered his downfall on Friday.
Even so, there's no question that Boehner played his hand terribly. His biggest savior was probably House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi—who, whatever you think of her personally, has maintained an iron grip on her membership. Pelosi bailed Boehner out over and over again, corralling the votes necessary to ram through whatever paltry legislation Congress has been capable of producing in the past few years over the objections of House Republicans. In recent days, there's even been speculation that Pelosi would save Boehner from a possible coup attempt if Republicans tried to overthrow him over the Planned Parenthood dispute. That would surely have been a singular humiliation.
Such talk is now academic. The focus will turn to Boehner's replacement, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy seen as the current frontrunner. But it's hard to imagine a more poisoned chalice than the speakership these days. The dynamics that forced Boehner to flee are still in place. Whoever succeeds him could soon be pleading for the same kind of divine intervention that inspired him to quit.