John Boehner announced Friday that he would step down from both his job as speaker of the House and his seat in Congress at the end of next month. The news is at once shocking and inevitable. Almost from the moment Boehner became speaker in early 2011 there were signs that he would be the victim of his own success. The tea party, in full revolt over the congressional stimulus and health-care packages, sent him a 63-seat majority. These new members, many of them first-time lawmakers, came to Washington certain that they had a mandate to stop at all costs the reckless spending they felt was happening in Washington.
At the time I was a beat reporter at Politico assigned to cover the freshman class. Because those freshmen had given Boehner the majority, and because they seemed — to the Republicans, anyway — to represent the best American democracy had to offer, a real, responsive movement to the politics that were unfolding in the Obama era, Boehner and his allies originally rolled out the red carpet for the new members. He gave freshman-class liaisons to leadership positions and made it clear that their voices would be valued in the party. (The members were also subject to way more media attention than the average rank-and-file member, which may have contributed to their outsize sense of self-importance.)
It soon became clear to me, in daily conversations with those members, that they viewed fighting against the leadership of their own party to be just as important as fighting Obama and the Democrats. Boehner suffered greatly for it. Being speaker was a career-long dream of his; he wanted to empower his conference to, as he so often put it, “work its will” on behalf of the people who elected them. But this turned out to be one of his most sentimental and naïve ideas. The House GOP blocked his efforts — and the efforts of the Democratic Senate, and the president, time and again. They forced him to walk away from the negotiating table, scuttled grand compromises, and shut down the government. And they were constantly whispering — openly enough for the media to hear them — about deposing him. At first those coup discussions were focused around Eric Cantor, who seemed happy to have the stories about his potential threat written but was not actually crazy enough to try to knife Boehner. But then the tea party offed Cantor, too. The conversations about ousting Boehner became more open. No other leader — not Pelosi, Reid, or McConnell — faced anything close to the open revolt he did. After Cantor’s exit from Congress, though, the challenges to Boehner seemed less likely than ever — which is why his decision to step down now came as a particular shock. The chance to hear the pope speak yesterday almost certainly played a role. Boehner is a deeply committed Catholic, and congressional leaders tend to favor stepping down after some big, emotional event — something that will give their story a sense of closure. There have been very few opportunities like that for Boehner in the last few years.
You could consider his exit from Congress just desserts. This is, after all, the guy who was knocked from his leadership role early in his career for taking part in a failed coup attempt against Newt Gingrich. This is the man who was in charge of the House GOP when it chose to shut down the government, and when it threatened to so many times before and after. He’s the man who had lawyers go to court for the Defense of Marriage Act when the administration was no longer willing to defend it, and who presided over so much craziness in the House. Certainly, the tea party is happy to see him go. At a Marco Rubio speech delivered at the Values Voters Summit Friday morning, the audience broke into cheers and applause when Boehner’s retirement was announced.
But that’s precisely why you should not be happy about Boehner’s resignation. Yes, he was very conservative (even if his colleagues didn’t always think so), but he was one of the last of the old-guard Republicans who tried to keep the party on the right side of sanity. He wanted to stop his party’s most destructive elements from taking over. His leaving will open up a leadership vacuum. The next person in line for the job is Kevin McCarthy, who became majority leader only a year ago and has struggled in the role. But there will probably be a scramble for the gavel, and whoever gets it will likely be even more precariously positioned than Boehner was. Last weekend, Boehner described to Politico how he was able to move forward with so much dysfunction in his party with his usual candor: “Prisoners learn how to become prisoners, all right?” They do. The question now is, who else will be willing to put up with that kind of confinement?