- - Sunday, September 27, 2015


John Boehner’s speakership had been on life support for weeks. The only surprise of his resignation was the timing. He obviously saw something bad coming at him. Better to exit crying than to be pushed out fighting.

The inventory of things conservatives didn’t like about Mr. Boehner is a large one, and the audience at a conservative “values summit” in Washington cheered when Marco Rubio passed on the news from the podium that the speaker had called it quits.

Moderate Republicans, the civility and good manners crowd, on the other hand were unhappy, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House, celebrated. She thinks the departure of Mr. Boehner marks the intensification of an internal squabble that will cripple the not-so-Grand Old Party as it moves into the election year. Sen. John McCain seems to agree.

These reactions and assessments are neither altogether accurate nor fair to a decent man who has no doubt done his best in a difficult job. But life, in John F. Kennedy’s famous formulation, is not fair, and politics may be unfairest of all. There is a struggle going on within the party, pitting impatient conservatives against a complacent establishment that is compromised by close ties to rent-seeking donors and willing to go along and get along with President Obama and his congressional allies. The establishment Republicans, on the other hand, dismiss impatient conservatives as mean-spirited and ignorant of the way Washington works, how legislation is crafted and how the public should think about it.

As the speaker, John Boehner was caught in the middle and often in the crossfire of the contending wings of the party. His sympathies were usually with the conservatives, but as an “institutionalist” he was never comfortable as a revolutionary. Like many before him, his loyalties to his constituents, to his colleagues and to Congress, where he had been a member since 1991, were often in conflict. His job was to weave together as best he could enough House Republicans to accomplish something. Conservatives targeting him as a failure forget the dozens of bills the House sent to the Senate, only to die a slow death in the world’s oldest blowhard body.

What the Republican leaders of both houses of Congress did to bring anger and contempt down on themselves was to allow their tongues to write checks that a certain other part of their bodies couldn’t cash. Promises made in the heat of the campaigns of 2010 and 2014, when temptation was great to indulge in big talk, led many of their constituents to take the promises at face value. If voters would just give Republicans control of both the House and Senate they would work miracles.

But once in Washington the new members, charged up and ready to fight, were told by Mr. Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the leader of the new majority in the Senate, to cool down. Like the voters who sent them to Washington, they felt betrayed, and soon looked for someone to punish.

Promises, alas, are easier to break than keep. Mr. Boehner knew this from the beginning, and in his frustration he and Mr. McConnell blamed the conservatives for their ignorance of how things work — when they might have treated voters as just as intelligent as members of Congress. Now Mr. Boehner is paying, and this should be a cautionary tale for Mr. McConnell.

Mr. Boehner’s successor faces the same challenge, and he, too, will disappoint those looking for someone to lead a kamikaze squadron to battle, willing to risk losing everything to win a symbolic victory rather than the real thing. The successor will find tough going in setting the stage for 2016, when voters are likely to be far more skeptical than they were in 2012 and 2014. Once bitten, twice shy, and all that. John Boehner may well figure he was only getting out while the getting was good.

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