If you peered carefully between the lines, you could find subtle clues that John Boehner did not fully adore what his job had become. For instance, in an interview last week with Jake Sherman, the House speaker said, “Garbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage. Prisoners learn how to become prisoners, all right?” Boehner’s life as speaker was an endless, repetitive succession of fighting off coup attempts and ending or preventing shutdowns, punctuated by occasional bouts of crying. Why Boehner would cling to this role when he could leave at any moment for an extravagantly remunerative lobbying gig was hard to understand.
To understand the pressures that brought about Boehner’s demise as an ideological split badly misconstrues the situation. The small band of right-wing noisemakers in the House who made Boehner’s existence a living hell could not identify any important substantive disagreements with the object of their wrath. (The one exception to this is Boehner’s brief, aborted 2011 attempt to craft a long-term debt deal with the Obama administration, which he abandoned under pressure from Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) The source of the disagreement was tactical, not philosophical. Boehner’s tormentors refused to accept the limits of his political power.
This was the proximate source of the struggle that appears to have finally sapped Boehner’s will (or ability) to cling to his title. The usual band of irreconcilables in the House have recently demanded that Republicans shut down the federal government to force President Obama to agree to zero out funding for Planned Parenthood. Boehner and the party leadership have resisted not because they agree with funding Planned Parenthood, but because this tactic has no chance of success. The irreconcilables have tried to pressure him into yet another futile gesture by openly threatening, once again, to depose him.
Boehner has never supported any important aspect of the Obama agenda. Even at the outset of the Obama administration, with the president soaring in the polls and the economy plunging into the abyss, he rallied his entire party to withhold support from the stimulus and never seriously considered negotiating. He not only voted against Obamacare, but he repeatedly punctuated his speech denouncing it with shouts of “hell no!” The positive “accomplishments” of the Boehner Era were limited to avoiding a series of brinksmanship-induced catastrophes. The limits of conservative power extended to the ability to block all legislative progress or compromise. Boehner successfully delivered that. He even joined in several creative efforts to expand his institution’s power by using threats of shutdowns or debt-ceiling crises to coerce Obama into enacting portions of the Republican agenda, giving up only when Obama had beaten him back repeatedly.
It was not enough. Three quarters of Republicans believe, incredibly, that their party leadership has not done enough to oppose Obama. Three fifths feel “betrayed” by their party. “In the last seven years Barack Obama has successfully recruited, or corrupted, or hijacked — however you want to describe it — John Roberts of the Supreme Court; John Boehner, speaker of the House; Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate; and, some might even say, the pope,” ranted Rush Limbaugh the other day.
This discontent runs much deeper and wider than Boehner. It has driven much of the support for Donald Trump, whose “conservatism” rests in his affect, radiating power and contempt for Obama, rather than in his policies, which actually lie to the left of the party platform overall. Boehner had the misfortune of leading, or attempting to lead, his party in an era when it had run up to the limits of crazy, where the only unexplored frontiers of extremism lay beyond the reach of its Constitutional powers.