GOP Candidates Welcome Boehner's Exit at Jubilant Summit
Just a few moments after the news broke in Congress, applause boomed on the other side of the nation's capital.
The crowd at the Values Voter Summit in Washington erupted into a lengthy standing ovation when Senator Marco Rubio announced on stage that House Speaker John Boehner was resigning after nearly five years.
“I'm not here today to bash anyone, but the time has come to turn the page,” the Florida senator said at the Friday gathering, to more applause. “The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership.”
Senator Ted Cruz, one of Boehner's loudest dissidents from the right, jokingly credited the attendees for the speaker's decision.
“You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington? Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y'all come to town and somehow that changes!” the Republican presidential hopeful said to roaring applause. “My only request is: Can you come more often? ... The American people are waking up, and help is on the way.”
Boehner's planned exit from Congress at the end of October is an earth-shaking development for Washington. It's also a victory for the hard-right flank of the Republican Party, which has consistently attacked and undermined Boehner for ostensibly refusing to take on President Barack Obama. For the Republican establishment, the concern is a party drifting rightward ahead of an election in which many strategists are fearful of alienating moderates.
On the presidential stage it is Cruz, the de-facto leader of that flank of the party, who stands to benefit from that energy. He's been trailing a Republican primary dominated by anti-establishment enthusiasm which has boosted non-politicians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina into the top three in some polls.
“Some people like him on a personal basis,” Trump said of Boehner at the summit. But “we want to see the job being done correctly, we want to see people that are going to get it done.” He added, “We are so disappointed in the Republican establishment.”
Carson is also expected to speak at the summit. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who began as the presumptive front-runner in the GOP race, is not scheduled to attend.
Republican candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said at the summit it's “probably time” that Boehner “stepped down so we can start a new chapter in Washington, D.C.” Again, the crowd applauded.
Conservative groups active in Republican politics also celebrated. “Too often,” said Heritage Action President Michael A. Needham, “Speaker Boehner has stood in the way.” FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon called it “an example of grassroots politics at its best and is a huge victory for the House Freedom Caucus,” a group of conservative dissidents hungry for more confrontation with Obama.
Cruz was introduced by Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine, who said it's “good news” that “we're going to get new leadership in the House of Representative,” and credited Cruz with “exposing” Republican leadership as playing too nice with Democrats.
The move by Boehner, who was facing constant threats of coup attempts, is a blow to the pragmatic-establishment wing of the party that, under Boehner's leadership, sought to avoid fights with Obama that they didn't think were winnable or were too damaging to the party's larger goals.
Bush, who reportedly has long been urged by Boehner to run for president, is associated with that wing. Bush, whose campaign in May hired former Boehner spokesman Michael Steel as a senior adviser, praised the outgoing speaker.
Boehner's allies were disappointed to see him go. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin called him “a great leader of the Republican Party and the House of Representatives.” Representative Peter King of New York bluntly called Boehner's resignation “a victory for the crazies.” Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia hailed Boehner as a “tireless public servant for his constituents” to made a “courageous decision” to unite the party.
But unite to what end? In the coming months, Boehner's successor will face major challenges such as funding the government and averting a catastrophic debt default.
On the presidential stage, it is the establishment wing that has tended to win Republican primaries for the last half-century. The 2016 election will test that trend, and Boehner's resignation—and the response to it—will provide clues as to which direction the party wants to go in.
“If conservatives unite,” Cruz told the crowd, “we win.”