“He actually chose the interest of the party over himself.” – Chuck Todd, NBC, on Speaker John Boehner’s decision to resign from Congress (I’m reciting the quote from memory, having just heard it 5 minutes ago, so it’s probably imprecise).
John Boehner has spent the last five years as Speaker trying to hold his fractious caucus together. This morning, he may finally have succeeded – by sacrificing himself. Cue the shock and (dismay/glee – depending on your factional preference apparently). However, this shouldn’t be a surprise: Boehner has been about advancing and protecting the party his entire career.
He first entered Congress in 1990 by challenging and defeating disgraced incumbent Buz (“I didn’t know she was a teenager”) Lukens in a primary. From there he was a loyal Republican Congressmen serving country and party as hundreds have before them. In Boehner’s case, he helped expose the House Banking scandal, and helped Newt Gingrich hold an equally fractious 1990s majority together that brought Bill Clinton to the table for the 1997 tax reduction deal (a bizarrely unheralded moment for economic conservatives). During the Administration of Bush the Younger, Boehner stayed true to his party and his president – including at times where I think he shouldn’t have (the 2008 bank bailout, for instance).
Yet it was during his time as Speaker that his skills were truly put to the test. Faced with new members who had promised their voters far more than they could deliver (and truth be told, Boehner’s own hands were far from clean on this), he spent years managing expectations as much as his members. A veteran of the 1990s battles, he was certain about what fights could be won – and what fights couldn’t be won.
I’m not going to say I thought he was always right in this regard, because I don’t. The Speaker made mistakes, as all humans do. Yet much like Gingrich and the aforementioned 1997 deal, Boehner’s chief accomplishment will go unheralded – the Budget Control Act of 2011. It was imperfect, and imprecise, but it also led to the first sustained reduction in real government spending since the 1950s. Today, federal spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen back to 2007 levels – something that not even the hallowed Simpson-Bowles commission believed was possible. He also enabled the Export-Import Bank to expire.
Even now, as the arguments over Planned Parenthood raged through the party, Boehner held firm on the BCA spending caps – which will likely remain in any Continuing Resolution past October 1.
It wasn’t easy. In many ways, Boehner ended up a modern Clevinger – defending each faction to the other(s), desperately trying to remind them they were all in this together. At times, he was even criticized for things he didn’t do – such on the Iran deal, where Boehner was slammed for supposedly using the Corker law as a fig leaf for the agreement when he actually got the House on record stating the president didn’t follow the Corker law in the first place.
In the end, he couldn’t fight the tribalism that has now infected (badly) both wings of the party. Truth be told, I have always considered the establishment wing to be tribalist – it’s one of its features – but the increasing tribalism of the conservative wing should give all of us who place ourselves in it pause. We’re supposed to be about ideas, not people. When we place people above principles, we’re doing it wrong.
As for Boehner, he exits stage right, and the election to replace him as Speaker will trigger the catharsis that could at last lead the caucus to close ranks. We will see.
As for his legacy, the indomitable Kevin Williamson put it best:
In 2009, federal spending was about 25 percent of GDP, and in 2014 it was about 20 percent; for those of you wondering what the difference between Obama-Pelosi-Reid government and Obama-Boehner-McConnell government is, there’s a big piece of your answer.