Boehner Leaves Chaos in the House and Clarity in the Presidential Election
John Boehner's sudden departure as speaker of the House is a symptom of the cross-cutting and at times schizophrenic pressures the Republican Party leadership has been dealing with for more than a decade.
As the Ohio congressman prepares to depart his job at the end of next month, a tally of his friends and foes constitutes a history of his struggles to hold together both an increasingly confrontational and right-wing flock of Republican House members and the party's establishment, which recognized the need to help govern the United States at a time of continuing economic and national security anxiety.
Who liked Boehner? More moderate House Republicans, most Beltway lobbyists, the Capitol Hill media, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, and, in the end and despite their regular conflict, President Barack Obama and Boehner's opposite number, California Representative Nancy Pelosi.
Boehner's foes? Talk radio hosts from coast to coast, young Senate firebrands like Ted Cruz, grassroots activists, and the several dozen most conservative House members, whose threats to force a vote to depose the speaker probably precipitated his departure.
The irony is that Boehner, on most issues, is every bit as conservative as his conservative critics. He wants to defund Planned Parenthood, scrap the Affordable Care Act, and stop the Iran nuclear deal. But, unlike his critics, Boehner has been both realistic and accommodationist, however uncomfortably, to the realities of Harry Reid's veto capability in the Senate and Obama's veto pen. Upcoming deja-vu fights over spending bills, potential government shutdowns, and debt ceiling increases were going to put Boehner right back where he’d been in the past. Almost inevitably, he was going to have to turn the House floor over to Pelosi to keep the government running. But Boehner had apparently lost his appetite for that gambit—or decided he would rather drop the microphone and stroll off, rather than be pushed out of the job he had always wanted.
Boehner's departure will almost certainly lead to more chaos within the House conference and in the pending budget fights between the House, the Senate, and the White House. But it might actually produce clarity on the presidential campaign trail, drawing a crisp line through the GOP field.
The young-turk contingent wasted no time in applauding Boehner’s departure—stopping just short of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, suggesting it augurs more confrontation on Capitol Hill and the nomination of one of their kind for president. “It’s time for a new generation of Republican leaders,” tweeted Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Senator Marco Rubio made an almost identical self-serving appeal. Addressing the same group, Cruz was almost gleeful. “You want to know how much you terrify Washington,” he said. “Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y’all come to town, and somehow that changes. My only request is: Can you come more often?”
The two chief establishment candidates, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich, both with longstanding personal and professional ties to Boehner, were instantly gracious about the speaker's announcement. The coming chaos in Congress could spur even more grassroots resistance to the two men. But it could also arouse the establishment wing of the party (from K Street lobbyists, to fellow governors, to business leaders in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) to rally around a candidate who offers himself up as the “adult in the room.” Both Bush and Kasich have already played that card in their campaigns—and a post-Boehner government shutdown or breach of the debt ceiling, could make it the ultimate GOP-nomination trump card (even in— especially in—the Age of Trump).
The biggest winner from Boehner's move is liable to be Hillary Clinton. Anything that allows her to run against an image of the Republican Party as extreme, chaotic, divisive, and unable to govern is good for her. The media will be largely sympathetic to those arguments in the coming weeks and months, creating a storyline that will to some extent crowd out coverage of the former secretary of state's e-mail controversy and her sagging political standing.
If Vice President Joe Biden gets in the race, he could make a similar case. He has for years talked about how “this is not your father's Republican Party.” That line was part of the Obama-Biden ticket winning re-election and it fits with Biden's brief that he knows how to govern and how to make deals across the aisle.
Boehner was never given enough credit for holding together his caucus and the government in the face of powerful countervailing forces. On his watch, the government shut down briefly, but he cleverly avoided any huge calamities arising from divided government, for which his fans gave him credit. But he also failed to stop Obama from running roughshod over GOP goals on issues such as immigration, Iran, and spending, for which his intra-party critics will never forgive him.
In Washington, the new House leadership is likely to be worse at the first and no better at the second. The resulting tumult is likely to create more gridlock inside the Beltway, even as it brings some clarity to what has been a wild presidential contest.
Kendall Breitman contributed reporting.