The PJ Tatler

Boehner's Biggest Mistake: A Failure of Imagination

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John Boehner will be out as speaker of the House at the end of next month because he ended up bringing a knife to a gunfight in his conflicts with House conservatives and the president.

Weak, ineffectual, incompetent — he is, to my mind, the worst speaker in my lifetime. But there is another factor that caused his downfall: an adherence to old-fashioned ideas about responsible governance and a failure to imagine a way to lead his fractious, undisciplined mob of a caucus.

He was not a good advocate. And he left a lot to be desired as an opponent. He was a stumbling spokesman for the party. And he couldn’t articulate a strategy that would defeat the Democrats, who made outmaneuvering him a regular occurrence.

But it’s not all his fault. He wasn’t a good advocate because no one in the Republican Party knows what to advocate for. And he was horrible on the Sunday shows because with no agenda, he had very little to talk about.

John Boehner believed he was sent to Congress to represent his constituents’ interests and help govern the country. These quaint, out-of-step notions of responsible governance fall on the deaf ears of the 50% of the Republican Party that is gloating at his ouster.

Ramesh Ponnuru writing in Bloomberg:

Since taking control of Congress, they haven’t voted on conservative proposals to deal with health care, taxes or higher education. They’ve telegraphed that they’re planning to wait for a presidential nominee to supply a platform. While they wait, congressional leaders including Boehner have tried to get budget bills passed on time and acted on the various priorities of business groups. That M.O. inspires neither conservatives nor voters generally.

But conservative activist groups haven’t had an agenda, either — no list of policies they want Congress to enact or presidential candidates to endorse. And this leads to an unwinnable situation for those rare occasions when Republican politicians do make proposals. Because there’s no generally accepted conservative plan for subsidizing primary education or health care, when Republicans propose something it can always be judged as inadequate when compared to some undefined alternative.

Neither congressional leaders nor conservative activists set policy goals for each year, but in the late stages of the budget-writing process the latter tend to stumble on some demand that they then seek to make the leaders deliver. In 2013, conservatives decided it was time to defund Obamacare; now it’s time to defund Planned Parenthood.

Their vagueness about what they want has also affected the presidential contest. A few groups, it’s true, have asked for specific policy commitments. Pro-lifers have gotten most of the candidates to agree to sign a bill banning late-term abortions, and free-market groups have gotten them to oppose the renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s charter. But for the most part conservatives haven’t been seeking specifics, just badges of identity: signs that the candidates identify themselves as part of the conservative tribe.

An attractive agenda that appeals to a broad range of conservatives and enough moderates to forge a majority coalition: It’s easy enough for a columnist to state that goal, much harder for an officeholder to achieve it. But it isn’t clear that Republicans generally see the absence of such an agenda as a problem. And that’s a major reason to expect that Boehner’s successor will have no happier a tenure than he’s had.

The times changed and Boehner didn’t. When he first arrived in Washington in 1990, there was still a lingering sense of bipartisanship on some issues. And the personality of the House was different. Hardened ideologues were few and far between. If not friendliness, there was comity in the House and pragmatism ruled the day.

Boehner tried to be pragmatic. He tried to be reasonable. But these are alien concepts to many right wingers who saw insufficient fire in Boehner’s gut to go after Obama and a suspicious lack of animus directed toward Democrats. Add to the mix the fact that Boehner could never decide how hard to come down on the right-wing revolutionaries who bedeviled his speakership. He ended up earning neither their fear nor respect.

Will the next speaker do any better? If a member of the Tea Party Caucus, he is going to have to find a way to work with the establishment — many of whom are Boehner’s friends and cronies. No doubt some of them would love to make life as hard for the next speaker as the right made Boehner’s life.

But it won’t matter to John Boehner, whose nightmare speakership will end very soon.

Video: Boehner Chokes Up as He Describes Private Meeting with the Pope