When John Boehner leaves Congress at the end of October, he will have been the 12th-longest-serving Speaker of the House in U.S. history, yet his departure is also a consequence of long-term distress within the party he’s been leading for all that time. Whether for the moderate or radical Right, Boehner’s tumultuous reign has been the tip of the dissastified-iceberg when it comes to the character and direction of the Republican Party. Since news of his resignation emerged, reaction from the Right has ranged from sympathy over Boehner’s unmanageable plight, to concerns over the GOP’s future, to outright celebration over what it is seen as a move toward a changing of the guard for the Republican Party. Focusing on the latter group — those who are literally standing and applauding his departure — Boehner’s demonstrated conservative bonafides seem either misunderstood or ignored, though his conservative accomplishments can’t be, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie highlights:
What’s amazing about all of this is the degree to which Boehner and his team have actually delivered conservative policy. Under his leadership, congressional Republicans have slashed federal spending — achieving $3.2 trillion in cuts — and blocked important parts of Obama’s agenda, like comprehensive immigration reform. Despite this, rank-and-file Republicans hate him. According to a new survey from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 72 percent of GOP primary voters are dissatisfied with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, including the 36 percent who want them “immediately removed” from their posts.
Responding to that rank-and-file angst, Hot Air blogger Allahpundit insists that context matters:
Boehner’s dilemma as Speaker was simple yet enormously challenging: His caucus consists of what now are essentially two different parties that happen to overlap on some matters like taxes. Once both of those parties had acquired enough representatives inside the GOP caucus to be able to deny Boehner a majority on any hot-button bill, he was destined to disappoint one or the other consistently — and we know which one was disappointed most often. Things would have been different (maybe not a lot different but a little) with a Republican majority in the Senate and no filibuster to give Democrats leverage. In that case, Boehner could have made more concessions to House conservatives without fear that the resulting bill would be torpedoed by Harry Reid in the other chamber. But we don’t live in a world without a filibuster — yet. In fact, Boehner spent less than nine months of his five-year Speakership with a GOP majority in the Senate. Between the strength of Democratic opposition and Obama’s veto always hanging overhead, he didn’t have many levers to pull to achieve lasting conservative victories.
Writing for The Week, W. James Antle III adds that Boehner had an impossible bar to clear:
[C]onservatives were looking for someone more like Newt Gingrich, albeit with better long-term results. They wanted someone who could communicate conservative principles and fight for the Republican platform. They wanted someone to beat Obama, as their presidential nominees couldn’t do. They wanted someone to stop playing defense and go on offense against ObamaCare and a slew of liberal programs that offended them.
Antle also points out that “what Boehner mostly did as House Speaker was rescue the more conservative members of his caucus from dire political miscalculations while offering little alternative vision of his own.” But don’t expect agreement on that point from Heritage Action for America’s Michael Needham, however, who tries to explain in Politico Magazine how Boehner’s real problem was that he was unwilling to accept how much his party was changing, and thus how essential those more conservative members’ ideas were:
[T]he balance of power is starting to shift. The challenge for the Washington establishment — in which Speaker Boehner was firmly entrenched — is how to adapt to such a radical and empowering change in the political landscape. In the long run, the last year of turmoil in the GOP will prove to have been immensely positive. You had a Speaker who decided he was going to ignore the decentralizing influence of digital communication and try to govern with an iron fist ignoring the will of his voters. And that model has proven to be a complete failure.
RedState’s Erick Erickson goes further, suggesting that the Speaker held many of his fellow Republicans in contempt, even to the point of political treason:
[Boehner] is out not because of bad deals, but because of bad manners. He wanted to be Speaker of the House, but increasingly only acted as Speaker for those members of congress he liked. At first that included more Democrats than conservatives. But in the end, it included more Democrats than Republicans at all.
Or perhaps Boehner was also simply out of his depth, as the Independent Journal Review’s Stephen Miller thinks:
It was never so much about Boehner screwing over the base and lighting cigars with donation dollars as much as it was about not adapting to a playing field of new politics and new media that had completely shifted under his feet. When a younger, bolder GOP base more focused on grass roots and social media stood up in insurrection, he of course handled them about as well as he did Obama.
The Atlantic’s Molly Ball elaborates on Boehner’s weakness when it came to wrangling his party:
Having banned earmarks, Boehner couldn’t use pork-barrel spending to win votes. And with his naturally easygoing temperament, he wasn’t an enforcer — unlike the former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, no one would ever nickname John Boehner “the Hammer.” Boehner’s efforts to punish those who defied him — by stripping committee assignments, for example — were only met with more defiance. In the vote to reelect him speaker in January, 25 Republicans voted against him, the greatest number of defections any speaker has faced in the last century.
Elsewhere, ConservativeHQ’s Richard A. Viguerie, a prominent grassroots fundraiser, is significantly less charitable when reviewing Boehner and the GOP establishment — he not only wants them gone, but fully embraces escalating the internal conflict to make that happen:
[E]stablishment Republicans aren’t just people who don’t understand — they are the political enemies of constitutional liberty, and the first hurdle we must pass to govern American according to conservative principles. It is the most important political battle in America, and it’s not between Republicans and Democrats — it’s inside the Republican Party.
And RedState’s Leon H. Wolf is already worried about the party’s next probable leader — Representative Kevin McCarthy — and believes Boehner’s exit is mostly about taking one for the establishment team, noting if Boehner gets a new budget bill passed and raises the debt ceiling in the next month, he will end up the “appointed scapegoat” and therefore “McCarthy will count on having a couple years of goodwill from the Republican voting public to try to get the caucus in order again”:
Watch how the caucus votes on the leadership election and how quickly they move. If McCarthy immediately consolidates support and wins on the first or second vote, it will show that House members, by and large, have learned nothing. It will show that dumping Boehner was purely a PR strategy instead of a recognition that the direction he was taking the caucus was untenable. If McCarthy breezes into power basically uncontested, he should start from day one with just as much skepticism from conservatives both in the caucus and in the voting booth as Boehner does.
But Republican strategist Rick Wilson has a different mindset. He calls the conservative activists who long targeted Boehner “amateur-hour” nihilists, and argues that conservative lawmakers — establishment or not — are long overdue for a strategy wake-up call:
The next Speaker needs move past thinking the job is about passing bigger budgets and to start leading in a way that is relevant and compelling to Americans outside the Beltway. It means a commitment to an aggressive message strategy that isn’t stuck in the shopworn DC language American voters universally reject. It will mean having a Speaker willing to work on a timeline that extends beyond the next day, the next email drop or the next news cycle. It means telling allies in the business world they have to defer their satisfaction. It means breaking the will of the minority by cutting off their power in committees, whittling down appropriations for their districts to pennies and crumbs. It means waging smart fights against Barack Obama and the Democrats, being willing to break legislation into single-subject bills that make the pain of a White House veto more apparent and playing harder politics with the minority.
Also thinking strategically (and somewhat more optimistically), Slate’s Reihan Salam believes the next leader of the GOP can and should “unite members around a coherent agenda”:
It is extremely unlikely that GOP lawmakers will be able to achieve their larger policy goals as long as President Obama is in office. And now that the presidential race is underway, congressional Republicans will have to take a backseat to the major presidential candidates on big-picture issues like tax and health care reform. What Republicans in the House can do, however, is advance a constitutionalist agenda to defend the prerogatives of Congress and resist the expansion of the executive authority … More broadly, Republicans should seek to reform the way Congress does business by streamlining the federal budget process and by giving committees more resources to hire expert staffers so they won’t be so dependent on lobbyists and other outside organizations to make informed decisions.
The beauty of this agenda is that it can appeal to all Republicans, whether they’re moderates or hardcore conservatives. While Republicans in the Obama era disagree about many things, they share the belief that the executive branch has grown far too powerful and that the budget process is broken and biased against meaningful spending reform. By addressing these issues now, House Republicans can set the stage for major conservative reforms in the event that a Republican president is elected in 2016.
Along those lines, Ramesh Ponnuru argues on Bloomberg View that most conservatives in Congress, as well as the activist groups, haven’t actually constructed a real agenda based on their ideas, rather than just opposing President Obama’s. In addition, as he writes, “it isn’t clear that Republicans generally see the absence of such an agenda as a problem. And that’s a major reason to expect that Boehner’s successor will have no happier a tenure than he’s had”:
[Conservative activist groups have] no list of policies they want Congress to enact or presidential candidates to endorse. And this leads to an unwinnable situation for those rare occasions when Republican politicians do make proposals. Because there’s no generally accepted conservative plan for subsidizing primary education or health care, when Republicans propose something it can always be judged as inadequate when compared to some undefined alternative. […]
Their vagueness about what they want has also affected the presidential contest. A few groups, it’s true, have asked for specific policy commitments. Pro-lifers have gotten most of the candidates to agree to sign a bill banning late-term abortions, and free-market groups have gotten them to oppose the renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter. But for the most part conservatives haven’t been seeking specifics, just badges of identity: signs that the candidates identify themselves as part of the conservative tribe.
And thus the current GOP presidential field remains dominated by antiestablishment, outsider candidates. The race is far from finished however, and as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn points out, despite the growing influence of more radical Republicans in red states, blue-state Republicans still run the table when it comes to financing and nominating candidates:
In the last two cycles, relatively moderate Republican candidates won the party’s nomination by sweeping the blue states. Mr. Romney and John McCain won every Obama state in the last two primary cycles, making it all but impossible for a conservative to win the nomination. Mr. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before Rick Santorum dropped out. … [T]o win, the red-state Republicans will have to persuade blue-state voters. They haven’t had to do that in the House, where their numbers have been enough to force the Republican leadership to shift in their direction and to put pressure on their [S]peaker to resign. But they won’t have those same numbers at the Republican convention.
And for any radical Republicans looking to extend the fight deep into the primary process, or try more brinksmanship in Congress with whomever the next Speaker is, Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle offers a reality check:
Intransigence and bold demands do not necessarily get you closer to what you want; they often push you further away. Next year, Republicans will be trying to take back the presidency. A Congress that shuts down a few times or spends all its time passing strong, base-pleasing bills that can’t get past the Senate, much less the president’s veto pen, is not going to improve their chances. And for all the complaints about candidates who are Republican in name only, any of them would deliver more of what the party wants than Hillary Clinton would.