It was a surprise on Friday morning when news broke of House Speaker John Boehner’s plan not only to step down from his leadership post, but to resign from Congress. In hindsight, though, the decision is anything but shocking. Unlike many members of his fractious caucus, Boehner is a conservative whose interest was governing, not grandstanding. He believes in governance and in the Republican Party, but under his House leadership – not necessarily because of it – both were at risk.
Under pressure from tea party members in his caucus, Boehner struggled, not always successfully, to prevent government shutdowns. Even the threat of such a failure – truly representing a collapse of common sense – simultaneously undermined the government and public confidence in the party’s ability to lead.
Boehner may have seen the writing on the wall. He knew a coup was in the works and may have doubted his ability to survive it. With at least 30 Republicans involved in a potential no-confidence vote, Boehner would have needed Democratic votes to remain as House leader.
At the same time, tea party Republicans were threatening to shut down the government yet again unless Congress defunded Planned Parenthood over videos purporting to show that the agency was illegally profiting from the sale of aborted fetuses.
At least in part, Boehner sacrificed his career to prevent, or at least put off, that no-win confrontation. With his announcement, he won agreement for a clean continuing resolution to fund the government. In that, he performed a noble act for the country and his party, though the future looks no more promising, regardless of who succeeds him as speaker.
Alone, those were sufficient reasons for an honorable man to call it a day, but it’s hard not to wonder, too, if Boehner had simply had enough.
National politics have changed for the worse over the past quarter-century, and nowhere is that phenomenon playing out more visibly than within the House Republican caucus. Boehner was caught in a crossfire that he couldn’t halt and couldn’t dodge.
Like many speakers before him, Boehner had a cordial after-hours relationship with the president. He and President Obama played golf together. It is a wholly praiseworthy thing in that it helps to preserve a level of respect that is necessary to the functioning of a divided government in a large and politically diverse nation.
But not to the tea party. To those zealots, Boehner was treating with the enemy. In that, they are the political disciples of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once counseled his members to describe Democrats with words including sick, pathetic, lie, traitors, corruption and more. In the end, Boehner called off his golf dates with Obama. It was too hard.
But that was what governance once was in Washington. You fought hard with people you nonetheless respected. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy became friends with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. They were political opposites – regular adversaries who not only found ways to compromise on issues, but who found in one another something they liked.
It’s not that way today.
Boehner had originally planned to step down at the end of 2014, but when then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his re-election bid, Boehner changed his mind. After only five years as speaker, he is another victim of the tea party’s grim determination to have its way. His departure may not make the country any worse off, but it offers clear evidence of how destructive Washington has become.