There will now be a myriad of post-mortems about the tenure
of John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. house. Each of them
will likely focus on his problematic relationship with his own
house caucus and his lack of support among many very
conservative Republican grass roots voters.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Speaker Boehner that
was widely republished, and received both praise and criticism.
It was not uncritical of the Ohio congressman, but it was a
tribute to what he had accomplished in his four years leading
his party in the Congress. It asserted that Mr. Boehner was the
most underestimated man in Washington, DC, while at the
same time pointing out his major political defect, his lack of
skill at public communication. In the wake of his sudden
departure, I stand behind what I wrote.
Normally, such communication is not the first priority of a
house speaker, since his or her party’s incumbent president or
presidential candidate fulfills that task. Instead, the primary
job of a speaker is to manage his caucus and its legislation.
In short, the work of the speaker of the house is institutional
not public relations. Circumstances, however, alter this,
especially when one party controls the White House and the
other party controls one or both houses of Congress.
The period 1995 to 1998 had Republican Newt Gingrich as
speaker and Democrat Bill Clinton as president. In that era,
there was still a will to compromise and cooperate to
do the nation’s business. Speaker Boehner came from that
world, but President Obama did not. Gingrich is a gifted
communicator, one of the best in recent U.S. history, but he
could not manage his own caucus, and finally he had to resign
in 1998. (He ran a notable campaign for president in 2011-12,
and remains as a wise elder statesman for his party.)
In 1995-96, Mr. Gingrich and his majority house caucus shut
down the government. It was a political disaster. In 2013, Mr.
Boehner and his majority caucus shut down the government.
It, too, was a political disaster. An attempt to do the same in
2014 was blocked by Mr. Boehner, and he understandably and
correctly was resisting doing it again this year, only months
before the 2016 national elections.
But the GOP success in the national mid-term elections in
2014 had created a mood in the conservative grass roots to
accomplish something dramatic against the hated policies of
President Obama. Lacking the votes in both the house and
senate to override the president’s inevitable vetoes, both
Mr. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
have avoided showdown votes which are only symbolic.
Yet the conservative ferment would not go away.
Neither Mr Boehner nor Mr. McConnell, however, are good
enough communicators to assuage that ferment in their own
grass roots. In Mr. Boehner’s case, his intraparty opponents
did not have the votes to oust him. All threats to do so were
empty ones. But the tensions from them and the dissension
took their toll. Mr. Boehner, as I have written, grew in office,
became a better communicator, tirelessly recruited new
candidates, and remained a steady conservative.
On the other hand, even if the GOP wins the presidency in
2016 and keeps control of the senate, Republicans almost
certainly will lose some house seats in 2016 (but not control),
Having managed an unruly and dissident caucus, and having
realized most of his personal goals (the latest being the inviter
and host of Pope Francis, but also including his bold invitation
to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the
Congress over Mr. Obama’s objections), John Boehner, after a
quarter century in Congress, decided to call it quits.
Kevin McCarthy will probably be his successor. Younger and
clearly talented, Mr. McCarthy has hard work before him. As
Newt Gingrich once observed, few if anyone is truly prepared
to be speaker of the house.
The mavericks in the house might have realized their goal of
being rid of Mr. Boehner, but they are far from a majority. Mr.
McCarthy, or anyone else who might become speaker, will end
up doing most of what Mr. Boehner would have done. Anything
else would be electoral folly, and would endanger the likelihood
of Republicans electing a president in 2016.
Today, the post-mortems will likely agree that Mr. Boehner had
become unpopular and too controversial. Tomorrow, when he is
gone, his party will see how valuable, even with his shortcomings,
he was in their successes.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.