John Boehner’s announcement on Friday that he will resign his speakership and the U.S. House seat he first won in 1990 came as shocking, but not surprising news. Whether he knew it or not, the Ohio Republican has been on a slow, political death march since before he seized the speaker’s gavel almost five years ago.
Liberals and Democrats inclined to rejoice may want to pause, and not only because Boehner’s successor may prove to be an even more difficult adversary. The speaker’s resignation may mark the onset of a new and, believe it or not, potentially more contentious era in congressional politics.
The timing of Mr. Boehner’s announcement—after Pope Francis’s visit, before what may be the latest in a series of partisan government shutdowns—makes perfect sense for the Catholic speaker, who was moved to public tears yet again discussing the papal visit. But it’s the private tears Boehner may well have shed during the four-plus years he served as speaker that merit analysis, perhaps even absolution.
To appreciate Boehner’s fraught tenure, it’s important to recall the years preceding Boehner’s 2011 ascension. During the financial crisis in 2008, while George W. Bush was president and Boehner was minority leader, two-thirds of House Republicans bolted on the initial vote on Bush’s proposed Wall Street bailout. Though the vote is sometimes remembered as a failure of Nancy Pelosi, who was speaker at the time, it prefigured troubles to come for Boehner.
Four months later, key congressional leaders met for dinner in Georgetown on the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration to decide how best to regain power. Their conclusion: Obstruct the new president’s agenda, absolutely and at every turn. The strategy seemed wise enough; after all, it worked for Republican Newt Gingrich—who attended that fateful dinner—16 years earlier.
But these Republicans failed to foresee that Tea Partiers would be lighting the party’s return path to control of the House in 2010. Despite professing to be born of opposition to Obamacare and raised on austerity, Tea Party sensibilities were more complex. One need not have read the pre-Tea Party warnings about rising authoritarianism from Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, nor the after-party analyses by Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto that document the movement’s racist and nativist undercurrents, to sense that the Tea Party was a phenomenon at once familiar, yet somehow profoundly different. Behind the tri-cornered hats and Gadsden flags a frightened, white, proto-populist brigade had mustered.
In practical political terms, two features distinguished Tea Party conservatism from its forerunners. First, unlike the Reagan Revolution three decades earlier or even the Newt Gingrich-led Republican capture of Congress in 1994, Tea Partiers are unapologetically dedicated to anti-governance and the politics of “no.” And second, even at its peak of power in November 2010 the movement was (and remains) a minority-within-a-minority posing as a sweeping majority.
So, although the win rate for 2010 Republican House candidates affiliated with the Tea Party was no better than unaffiliated candidates, and among Senate candidates it was slightly worse, it appeared that Tea Partiers had delivered the House for Boehner and the GOP in order to restore fiscal balance and limited government. But beneath that front were other, darker priorities, including calls for the mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
So it was that in January 2011 Boehner became the first Republican speaker in GOP history to lead without the benefit of a companion Senate Republican majority. By his second term as speaker, his caucus was comprised two-thirds of members elected in 2006 or later, with half of the caucus elected in 2010 and 2012 elections alone. Forget his barkeeper father’s Republican Party: This wasn’t even his own Republican Party. Although he was the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, Boehner would lead a chamber that was neither of his making nor fully under his control.
What followed over the next four-plus years was a series of government failures, including the August 2011 debt ceiling hostage-taking debacle and the 2013 government shutdown. Boehner himself is partly to blame: Getting into the spirit of obstructionism and revanchist policymaking, he proclaimed on national television one Sunday morning that Congress ought to be judged not by how many bills it passes, but by “how many it can repeal.”
Unfortunately, whether motivated by small government desire or racial animus, the new “politics of no” is uninspiring. Leaders who do not build bridges do not have bridges named after them. Even Gingrich publicly sympathized with Boehner when he said the job is probably ten times harder today than it was during the Georgian’s short rule during the mid-1990s.
No matter how many deal-with-the-devil accommodations Boehner made with member of his unruly House coalition to hang onto power, remember the shining moments when he pushed back. He rebuked those who advocated withholding financial support from openly gay Republican candidates for Congress. He helped avert what might have been yet another government shutdown in late 2014 over the issue of immigration and, if initial reports bear out, will leave office with a brokered deal in place to avoid a shutdown that would otherwise take place on October 1. The Boehner speakership could have been worse.
So rather than kick a weeping man while he’s down and soon to be out, perhaps we should drown a tear for the departing speaker. Though surely not without faults and failures, John Boehner was more the victim of his moment that he was a man in command of it.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that John Boehner had attended the Republican strategy dinner in Georgetown on the night of President Obama's inauguration.