John Boehner & The Rock of Sisyphus
Note: This piece is part one of two. The next part will address the promise and perils of a Paul Ryan speakership. It is recommended that Ryan’s circumstances be saved until then.
The Rise & Fall of John Boehner
If all goes according to plan, tomorrow Paul Ryan will be elected Speaker of the House. He didn’t especially want the job. He was nowhere in the general historical order of succession towards the Speakership. But these are special times. How did we get here?
I’m not going to get into the Tea Party and PPACA and all that, because everybody knows – or think they know – the important aspects of it. Rather, the often overlooked event was the budget battle of 2011. With the threat of a shutdown and the debt ceiling, Speaker Boehner and President Obama worked out a compromise that included some immediate budget cuts and the promise of more down the line (with the threat of a sequester). Historically, compromises like this are celebrated and grumbled at by both sides and life goes on. This time, however, things went off-script. Almost immediately, Republicans were declaring resolute victory. Outsized expectations that Obama would go down in 2012 were born. But then people started looking more closely and the cuts that Boehner had extracted at the front-end were largely illusory. Then it was the Democrats who were declaring victory and Republicans who were scrambling.
There were three lasting political effects from the budget of 2011. The first – as described in Double Down – is that President Obama was extremely ticked off that what was meant to be a good-natured compromise was (initially) portrayed as a Republican victory that embarrassed him, and he made the determination that that would not happen again. The second is that Boehner lost the trust of the already ornery Tea Party and hyper-conservatives in his party. The third is that it planted the seed for the Sequester.
In 2012, true to his word, President Obama did not compromise (much) in the budget process. This led to Boehner folding in order to avert crisis. That lead to more raucous cheering among Democrats. This victory was followed up on January 1st by the delaying of the Sequester, which again peeved conservatives, the Tea Party, and pretty much everyone important to Boehner’s Speakership. Shortly after the newly elected congress convened in 2013, the Sequester went into effect, giving at least the illusion of a major Tea Party victory amidst a sea of losses – most specifically the presidential race, as well as senate races, both of which were laid at the door of The Dreaded Establishment. Message: Tea Party winners, Boehner loser.
It took the 2013 shutdown to change this dynamic. The Tea Party had wanted their chance to do their thing, they did, and it was largely perceived within the party as disastrous. As it turned out, the Tea Party had a lot of blank pages in the battle plan where “How we’re going to win this thing” was supposed to be. When even the mighty Ted Cruz himself was forced to relent, it was the beginning of the end for the Tea Party. Establishment forces were ready to go on the offensive to avoid losing winnable races in 2014. The subsequent shutdowns that were supposed to occur did not occur. There was no embarrassing movement towards impeachment. And in 2014, Tea Party primary challenges either neither materialized nor was successful. Then in 2014/15, the Tea Party shot at the king and missed. Boehner was challenged for the leadership, won in what wasn’t even a contest, and he rained holy hell down on his detractors.
Contrary to conventional belief, he was not forced out. He never lost control of his House again. He just lost the will to keep fighting his own people, and perhaps on some level he no longer found it productive. So he announced his intention to retire.
The Empty Seat
Complicating Boehner’s exit was the lack of an heir. Though most primary challenges in 2014 were beaten back, one large exception was Eric Cantor, who was his chief deputy. Cantor is said to be the last victim of the Tea Party, but they ultimately had little to do with it and were not greatly involved in his last race. Cantor lost, by and large, because he was too busy preparing himself to be Speaker and not busy tending to his district. The Tea Party can perhaps take credit for anti-incumbent fervor, but if any group specifically was involved in that race it was the anti-immigration lot.
Next down the line was Kevin McCarthy, who was the assumed successor after Boehner made his announcement. This in and of itself was remarkable because McCarthy himself was only elected into the House in 2006, making his ascension the most rapid since Charles Frederick Crisp, who became Speaker in 1891. He also would have been the youngest since Crisp. It was also remarkable because for all of the anger over Boehner being insufficiently conservative, McCarthy was even less so. Which meant that he was neither a young ideological firebrand nor a someone who had waited his turn. That he was next in line to begin with was not an auspicious sign.
Of course, McCarthy never became Speaker. The battle lines were drawn for a protracted fight, but McCarthy had diarrhea of the mouth, rumors of infidelity, and he removed himself from consideration. It is entirely possible that, if he had plowed forward, he would have gotten the job. Except that, when he looked at the job, he seemed to have decided that it wasn’t worth fighting for. Which, it turned out, was a widely-held view.
The Powerful Job Nobody Wants
If McCarthy’s status as the front-runner was not itself alarming, the lack of people behind him was especially so. Former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan got immediate attention, but deferred. In fact, a job that is ostensibly one of the most powerful in the country and theoretically the third in line to the presidency itself, had somehow become a job that nobody of significance wanted. It wasn’t just the establishment that had difficulty. Hensarling didn’t declare. Golmert didn’t declare. The rabble-rousers that had caused this mess themselves had two candidates: A former Chief of Staff of Jon Huntsman, and a possibly lame-duck congressman who supports Jeb Bush for president.
All of which leads to this conclusion: It absolutely had to be Paul Ryan as the next Speaker of the House. Despite the fact that he didn’t want the job, he had to accept it. Despite the fact he is a problematic candidate who would be dismissed from consideration in any other circumstance, he has to be picked.
Feature Image: “Flickr – DVIDSHUB – John Boehner (Image 2 of 10)” by DVIDSHUB – John Boehner [Image 2 of 10]. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons