Some things in Washington are utterly transparent. And so it is with the House coup that forced John Boehner to retire as speaker. It was exactly what you’d expect it to be — another stupid and futile gesture on somebody’s part.
By all accounts, Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, will succeed Boehner as speaker, and McCarthy, as far as we know, is another conservative moderate in the Boehner mode — except he doesn’t smoke, cry or change colors with the seasons. He definitely isn’t a bomb thrower.
If the revolutionaries have won, the question is: What does it get them, other than Boehner’s scalp? If you think the answer is a long period of anarchy and an easy target for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, then you’re probably right. Not that it matters to the winners. They won. That was enough.
This move — stunning as it was — is exactly in line with the anarchy that defines the Republican presidential race, in which, as the TV pundits remind us on the hour, the three leaders — Trump, Carson, Fiorina – have never held elective office.
The party line is that politics don’t work, and the the right wing of the party seems determined to prove that it’s true. Not that anyone who has watched Congress these last few years would have any doubt. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) put it plainly enough — that this was a sure sign that “the crazies have taken over” the Republican party.
In the GOP, it’s hard to be an outsider and still be of or anywhere near Washington. Even the Tea Partiers are at risk of getting sucked in. But the fight with the party establishment, led by Ted Cruz from within and Donald Trump from without, tends to focus the mind. And so you see headlines already following the Boehner resignation asking whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is next.
In Boehner’s resignation speech, he said he wanted to avoid what he called the “turmoil” of a GOP revolt. Turmoil is a gentle term for what would have been, if Boehner had fought the coup attempt, a GOP civil war in the middle of a presidential race. It’s not clear if he resigned for the good of the party or for what’s left of his sanity.
As expected, Cruz, who loves turmoil, was gracious in victory, gleefully telling activists at a meeting of the Values Voter Summit, “You want to know how much you terrify Washington. Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y’all come to town, and somehow that changes. My only request is: Can you come more often?” (Cruz was on a roll. He also jokingly called Obama a communist. And Cruz later vowed that a vote for him was a vote for the Iran’s ayatollah to meet up with his “72 virgins.” What more could you want from a values voter summit?)
This is one of those defining moments in which nothing changes and everything changes. Boehner sticks around long enough to get the budget through with the help of Democratic votes and without the defunding of Planned Parenthood. He leaves in October before the next vote, which could come as early as December when the defunding will almost certainly be back. And it will be left to McCarthy, if elected speaker, to somehow both appease the right wing and to avoid a government shutdown. I’m sure Boehner has already wished him luck.
Meanwhile, Boehner looked like a guy who had just found his best friend. He was crying, of course, which meant he was, well, happy. Certainly relieved. In any case, at one point he broke into Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, which has to mean something.
Boehner did relay a touching story on his departure eve about a meeting with the pope. It was Boehner who had invited the pope to speak to Congress. That Francis became the first pope to address Congress was probably the high point of Boehner’s tenure (low points are more competitive).
As Boehner tells the story, he and the pope had a brief private meeting after the speech, in which the pope had asked him to pray for him: “The pope puts his arm around me, and kind of pulls me to him and says, ‘Please pray for me.’ Well, who am I to pray for the pope? But I did.”
Boehner said he did. And almost certainly prayed for himself as well.
And as he woke up the next morning — the day after hearing the pope warn the Congress against polarization and to “guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good and evil” – he decided he’d had enough. The Boehner era would soon be over over. It may not have been good or evil. Boehner was just trying to make it through without finishing on his knees.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, Flickr.