It was not a distinguished tenure. His meager accomplishments came in spite of himself and to the great consternation of his Republican colleagues. He pinballed from one pathetic humiliation, usually at the hands of his own caucus, to the next. The only reason Boehner remained speaker for as long as he did—to his eternal regret, it is clear—is because his bitterest opponents were too stupid to figure out how to oust him, and his likeliest replacements never wanted the job.
Boehner had just averted the “fiscal cliff,” a collection of automatic tax increases and austere spending cuts, by allowing a deal to pass—with more Democratic votes than Republican ones—that preserved the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans. Thanks to his own caucus, Boehner had no choice but to let this deal pass: Two weeks earlier, Boehner had been unable to whip up support for an alternative deal that had been crafted by the Senate Republicans.
Various House Republicans were, naturally, enraged that Boehner chose to avert a catastrophe rather than purposefully exacerbate what was already an entirely Congress-created crisis. This all coincided with the seating of a new Congress, so a group of conservatives decided to secretly plot to install a new speaker.
Except: They didn’t have a new speaker lined up (Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, the obvious choices, were clearly uninterested), and they didn’t have as much support as they thought they did, and they were completely inept at the “plotting” part of a plot. Joshua Green explained the funniest, Keystone Kopsian moment of the doomed conspiracy:
Any good coup depends on stealth. But on Thursday, an enterprising Politico photographer snapped Representative Tim Huelskamp sitting in open session reading from his iPad—not making this up—the entire roster of the plot against Boehner. Just so there was no mistaking that he was up to no good, the document was entitled “YOU WOULD BE FIRED IF THIS GOES OUT.”
So Boehner kept his job, and Congress staggered haplessly into the next crisis.
Because he was dealing with a Congressional caucus increasingly made up of ideologues and idiots, and because he was occasionally forced to betray conservatives in order to stave off catastrophes, moderate pundits occasionally speak, with some fondness, about John Boehner as a man who tried his best to keep his unruly conservative colleagues from doing too much damage.
There is no particular reason to feel any sympathy for the man.
John Boehner was and is an unprincipled ward-heeler who simply couldn’t weather the transition of the Republican Party from a corporatist party with a sizable conservative base to a purely conservative party. Boehner came to power when the priorities of the House Republican caucus were driven by what was effectively straight-up bribery, and his power came from his close ties to industry lobbies. This is the guy, as we all ought to be regularly reminded, who passed out checks from tobacco companies on the floor of the House.
Boehner’s problems as speaker stemmed from the fact that the conservative base that the Republican donor class exploited for a generation is now effectively in complete control of the party. Ironically, that control was solidified by the same event, the 2010 midterm election, that put Boehner into the speaker’s chair.
In the era of the K Street Project, the Republican agenda was effectively “whatever the United States Chamber of Commerce wants.” In that environment, someone like Boehner seemed a logical choice to lead the House Republicans, though it’s not even clear that he ever really wanted to. He may have been perfectly content acting as lobbyist money bagman for party leaders, but when then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay quit in disgrace in 2005, Boehner found himself in that position, under Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was soon to resign himself. In the absence of better candidates, Boehner became minority leader during the post-2006 collapse and retrenchment of the Republican Party.
After the 2010 Tea Party wave election filled the House with rabid conservatives, Boehner found himself elected Speaker of the House, and leader of a caucus that didn’t know, respect, or trust him. And because the current movement conservative theory of governance holds that legislative victories are achievable through sheer willpower, every time Boehner failed to eliminate Obamacare, it was assumed that Obamacare remained because Boehner the squish didn’t want to eliminate it bad enough.
But for a man frequently derided as lacking in backbone, he has stuck to his one overarching principle: Each one of his major legislative compromises as speaker—and even from before he was speaker, like when then-Minority Leader Boehner tearfully begged his Republican colleagues to vote for the 2008 bank bailout—represented Boehner defying the conservative base to act in the interests of the Republican donor class.
The current conservative movement’s frothing, apocalyptic style of politics is the natural result of 30-plus years of resentment-stoking by that same donor class. The monied interests that happily indulged the hysteria of the initial Obama backlash now worry that Jeb Bush can’t beat Donald Trump. Eric Cantor, once Boehner’s likely replacement, and a genuine conservative to his very core, was voted out of office by party activists. It’s long past time for Boehner to get the hell out of Washington and settle into the plush industry “consulting” gig that surely awaits him.