- - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hardline conservative House members finally made life sufficiently unpleasant for Speaker John Boehner that retirement was a practical alternative.

When Pope Francis spoke to the joint meeting of Congress, Speaker Boehner, a devout Catholic, knew he had been through the best day he would ever have as speaker. That night, he says he considered announcing his retirement. As a cautious, thoughtful leader, he slept on the idea, prayed and decided he was right.

The hard-line activists, talk-radio hosts and bloggers were ecstatic. Mr. Boehner would be gone. The price for not successfully defeating Obama would be paid.

Then a funny thing happened.

It now appears that the next speaker will be Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Leader and second to Mr. Boehner in the current leadership structure. This is unlikely to be the revolutionary shift the hard-right craved.

It quickly became obvious that the angry, noisy members who had constantly attacked and undermined Speaker Boehner simply lacked the numbers to compete in the conference. They had the noise but they did not have the votes.

I have watched this pattern over and over for the last five years, beginning with the remarkable sweep Mr. Boehner led in 2010 to take back the House. His constant focus that year on the question “Where are the jobs?” was a unifying theme on an issue the American people cared about. It worked and the GOP won back the majority in the House.

Mr. Boehner’s 2010 achievement was all the more remarkable because the Democrats had only been in control for four years.

Think of the contrast! The Democrats had been in charge of the House for 40 years, 1954-1994. Then the Republicans took over for 12 years before losing control. Now with Mr. Boehner’s leadership, that Democratic interlude was cut short at four years and Republicans have been in control for at least another six.

Mr. Boehner led House Republicans to three consecutive victories and increased the number of House Republicans to the largest Republican majority since 1928.

In the process, he helped elect a number of conservative, change-oriented members who were dissatisfied with the failure to defeat Obamaism.

As the country grew more hostile to Washington — 75 percent believe there is widespread corruption in government; the average American believes 51 percent of federal spending is waste; 62 percent of Republican voters are unhappy with their congressional leaders; and only 2 percent are very satisfied — that hostility was transferred to Mr. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Now Speaker Boehner has announced his retirement. But the new speaker will not be one of the fire-breathing activists who have made a career of attacking Speaker Boehner.

The result will be the promotion of Mr. Boehner’s senior lieutenant.

There are profound reasons why legislative bodies tend to evolve rather than leap to radical change.

There are 247 House Republicans.

Messrs. Boehner and McCarthy have helped virtually all of them personally.

In many cases they have been in their districts raising money.

In most cases they have done press events with them on issues that matter in their district.

In many cases they have helped them pass legislation.

It is very striking that the noisiest and angriest of the “anti-leadership” group give very little money to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (which is charged with protecting and growing the House majority), that they campaign in virtually no districts for colleagues and that they simply don’t do the hard work it takes to build the party.

Press releases and harsh interviews are not a substitute for years of team-building, recruiting, fund raising and nurturing.

In a legislative body, the person who reaches out to help the most people has an enormous advantage.

Kevin McCarthy will now benefit from that fact.

If the activists really want to change the House Republican Conference, they must learn the historic principles of gathering votes, recruiting candidates, helping incumbents and doing all of the mundane things that are at the heart of winning and keeping majorities. Until then, they will be noisy but ineffective.

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