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Sympathy for the Boehner

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The internet is thick with cruel GIFs of John Boehner crying today after he announced he was resigning as Speaker of the House and quitting Congress. But it’s hard not to have a little sympathy for the guy. He was an old-school, chain-smoking Republican who liked to chill with lobbyists, and he was put in charge of the Tea Party. What should have been the highlight of his career turned out to be no fun at all. 

60 Minutes

Boehner looked triumphant after the 2010 midterm elections, which gave Republicans a House majority after the beating they’d taken in 2006 and 2008. His leadership team was unanimously elected by the House GOP. A December 2010 New Yorker profile credited Boehner with being the first Republican leader to have grasped the power of the Tea Party, way back in April 2009. “I urge you to get in touch with these efforts and connect with them,” Boehner told fellow Republicans in a closed-door meeting. “The people participating in these protests will be the soldiers for our cause a year from now.”

Back then, Boehner expressed an easy confidence that the new Tea Party members would fall into line. In hindsight, his words sound strikingly naive: “There’s no daylight between the freshmen and any of our members or the leadership,” he told The New Yorker. Sure, the debt ceiling would need to be raised the following September, and many incoming freshmen had campaigned against it. Boehner vowed he would rein them in:

“This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the new Republican majority, Boehner told me. “You can underline ‘adult.’ And for people who’ve never been in politics it’s going to be one of those growing moments. It’s going to be difficult, I’m certainly well aware of that. But we’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

He did not ever manage to fully “educate members.” Instead, debt-ceiling trutherism emergedAccording to The New York Times Magazine, at one point in 2011 negotiations with the Obama administration over a grand debt deal—in which Obama indicated he could accept entitlement cuts—Boehner indicated that he thought his caucus might accept $800 billion in increased tax revenue. Of course, this was not the case. In the late summer of 2011, Boehner had to pass a debt-limit increase with Democratic votes.

The idea of an "adult moment" or an "adult conversation" would be a recurring one in Boehner's tenure. What he meant by "adult" seemed to be reasoned compromise reached through steak dinners and campaign donations and committee assignments. But he failed to appreciate that Washington didn’t work the same way it had in the two decades he spent building his career in Congress.

The disconnect was understandable, since Boehner had accumulated power the old-fashioned way. In 1995, he handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor. From 2000 to 2007, Boehner flew on R. J. Reynolds's corporate jets 47 times. In 2009, Boehner and his aides called a meeting with 100 Wall Street lobbyists and advised them to combine forces to stop financial regulatory reform. Asked about his close ties with lobbyists, Boehner said, “I get lobbied every day by somebody. … It could be by my wife. It could be the bellman.” He raised $36 million for Republicans in that election cycle.

But money and perks didn’t work so well on the Tea Party. After the 2010 election, Boehner gave GOP freshmen two leadership positions and three steering-committee seats. But he couldn’t control them during the debt-limit crisis in the late summer of 2011, and it certainly didn't get easier thereafter. During the repeated showdowns over the debt limit or the fiscal cliff or the cromnibus or threats of government shutdown, Boehner found he could negotiate deals with Obama, but he couldn’t deliver his caucus. In 2013, Obama publicly acknowledged that it "weakened" Boehner with his caucus to be seen working with the president the Tea Party loathes. "So there have been repeated situations where we have agreements, then he goes back and it turns out that he can't control his caucus," Obama said. "So the challenge here is can you deliver on agreements that are made."

Sometimes, Boehner was downright humiliated. In 2013, several conservative members of Congress tried to sink his reelection as speaker, with Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp openly holding an iPad that displayed a list of names of members who might vote against Boehner, under the title: “You would be fired if this goes out.” In 2015, despite his lobbying, Boehner faced another mutiny. After he was reelected anyway, he tried to punish the rebels, stripping two of their positions on the Rules Committee. "Boehner’s allies have thirsted for this kind of action from the speaker, saying he’s let people walk all over him for too long and is too nice to people who are eager to stab him in the back," Politico reported. The establishment momentarily perked up. An anonymous Republican leadership aide said the larger majority that Republicans won in the 2014 election meant “We don’t need these fringe guys as much as we did anymore." It seems they still needed them a little. 

Now that Boehner has given up his post, we can appreciate his struggle. Some of his failures can be viewed as successes in that, while they didn't result in a grand bargain, they at least avoided global calamity. In January 2013, after Tea Partiers ruined Boehner's fiscal cliff deal, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called Boehner an "American hero." Boehner's achievement, Douthat argued, was that rather than a grand bargain or a major conservative victory, Boehner had succeeded in "a kind of disaster management—a sequence of bomb-defusal operations that have prevented our dysfunctional government from tipping into outright crisis." 

There is some truth to that. Boehner did God's work sheparding Congress through this tumultuous time. Over the last five years, he got nothing but punishment for it. What should be Boehner's reward for these good works? A chance to finally spend his days having adult conversations with his kind of adults. He should become a lobbyist, of course. Let him live and dine amongst his people.