John Boehner always abhorred a family fight. Maybe that’s what comes of growing up one of 12 children.
Time and again as House Speaker, Boehner buckled or bent rather than confront head-on a relatively small number of uncompromising hard-right conservatives in his own Republican caucus.
Now, by announcing he will step down as Speaker effective Oct. 30, Boehner has positioned himself to do what’s best for the country — strike a deal with Democrats to keep the government from shutting down through the new year — while ducking that family fight to hold on to power. Any deal Boehner cuts with the opposition party to continue funding the government will not include defunding Planned Parenthood, which will outrage tea party conservatives, but Boehner no longer has to worry about his job — he’s quitting before he can be fired.
Is that Boehner’s plan, to fall on his sword? We can hope. He indicated Friday he will be anything other than a lame-duck Speaker, saying, “I plan on getting as much of it done as I can before I exit.”
Nothing here bodes well in the long run, however, for a less polarized Washington, and it’s hard to see much good in it for the Republican Party. By deciding to step down as Speaker, Boehner may have spared his supporters the wrath of tea party conservatives in their districts. But the next Speaker may be even more beholden to that wing of the party, which has been emboldened by Boehner’s resignation. They claimed a great victory Friday.
A Republican-controlled Congress has no choice but to compromise when there is a Democrat in the White House. That’s the only way a divided government gets stuff done. But the tail is wagging the dog. A relatively small number of hard-right conservatives in the House regularly stymies the efforts of Republicans who are more interested in governing than in hold-ups. The no-compromise faction would hold the government hostage to one hot-button issue after another, from funding Planned Parenthood to reauthorizing funding for the Export-Import Bank to raising the debt ceiling.
On Tuesday of last week, 11 freshman House Republicans sent Boehner a letter in which they all but begged him not to allow a bullying minority of their party’s caucus to force an “unnecessary and harmful government shutdown.” They pointed out that the 2013 shutdown, when Republicans balked at funding Obamacare, “not only hurt taxpayers with the loss of important government services — it actually cost more money to close the federal government than to keep it open.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, told us that Boehner was taken down by “a couple of dozen people who became more obsessed with overthrowing the Speaker than advancing our conservative agenda.” Kinzinger called this “senseless legislative hostage-taking, which only serves to make the Republican Party smaller.”
There you have it. The more any political party insists on ideological purity, shoving career deal-makers like Boehner out the door, the more marginalized that party becomes. As Democrats learned in 1984 when their candidate for president, Walter Mondale, was trounced by Ronald Reagan, a party either shakes free of its most extreme faction or dies. What’s catnip to voters in a primary can doom a party in national elections.
Tea party Republicans are crowing. When Boehner resigned, “the establishment” lost, chortled Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas.
Maybe so. But so did the GOP as a whole.
And so did a nation that continues to need a strong and viable conservative counterpoint to Democratic liberalism.
Because nobody’s got a lock on the whole truth.
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