John Boehner’s abrupt announcement that he will be leaving Congress in a few weeks comes when most of Washington is focused on visits by the Pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping, somewhat shopworn speculation about whether or not Vice President Joseph Biden will seek the Democratic nomination for president a third time and a Republican Primary that is very entertaining but reasonably frightening. Despite the crowded media environment, Mr. Boehner’s announcement reveals a bit about the state of American politics in late 2015.
Mr. Boehner has been Speaker of the House since the Republicans won back control of the House in the 2010 midterm election. During that time he has found himself constantly caught between the pulls of his own party’s very conservative House caucus, and the need to work with a liberal Democratic President to pass some legislation. Mr. Boehner was never particularly successful in this balancing act. HIs own caucus was in a state of near revolt, while it remains difficult to point to the passage of any major legislation in which he played a significant part.
Although Mr. Boehner has been relatively coy regarding the reasons for today’s announcement, it is apparent that he had little desire for another leadership fight or clash with his members about whether or not to yet again shut down the federal government. Had he remained as Speaker into the New Year, Mr. Boehner would likely have confronted both these battles.
The departure of Mr. Boehner will make the Republican Party another step closer to all but conceding any efforts to meaningfully govern. making it, as Peter King (R-NY) described it, “a victory for the crazies,” Mr. Boehner was hardly a Republican leader who was manipulated or regularly out negotiated by Democrats in Congress or in the White House. Rather, he was a conservative who made concessions so the country could keep running. That is known as governance; and today’s Republican Party seems increasingly uninterested in that.
History will not treat Mr. Boehner as a great legislator, brilliant political tactician or as having a unique ability to bring people together for the good of the country. He will, however, be remembered as somebody who at least tried to govern under difficult circumstances. That may not have been enough to make him a great Speaker of the House or even to sustain him in office, but it is not difficult to imagine that in a few years, perhaps even months, he will by missed by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.