The Tan Man Fades

by John Lawrence

Decades ago, a cartoon in the New Yorker portrayed two women waving goodbye  as a train pulled out of a small town station. One says to the other something like, “First the rain stopped, then the crops dried up, then the cow died, so John says, ‘Dammit, I’m going to run for Congress!’” That is sort of how John Boehner arrived in Washington: one of 12 kids in a Democratic family, sweeps out his dad’s bar, goes to a local Ohio university, goes into plastics (how perfect for a child of “The Graduate era”), gets aggravated by regulations and taxes and goes into politics to get government off his back and out of his pocket.

Boehner’s spent most of his adult life pursuing that elusive dream, rising to the top of the party whose single purpose, it generally seems, is to lower taxes on rich people, with a secondary goal of dismantling a century of bipartisan regulatory action. There is a certain consistency to Boehner: his anti-spending obsession extended to congressional sacred cows like farm subsidies. But despite his predictably conservative record – 100% from groups like the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, zero from NARAL – Boehner never was a zealot. Sure, he cowered before the Tea Party, refusing to bring up the Senate’s immigration bill and withdrawing his own halfway reasonable compromise after his party’s nativist wing attacked him; yes, he let the No Caucus shut down the government to demonstrate it was not the elixir that would make all their loony dreams come true, just like he let them vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act several dozen times, to no particular end.

Moreover, he rarely decided to stand up to his Republican House critics, recognizing that in doing so, he would jeopardize his tenuous hold on the speakership. In his resignation announcement, he pointed to slashing spending as the great achievement of 5 years in the Speaker’s chair; not much of a legacy. He could have achieved the elusive Grand Bargain (including major entitlement reform) back in 2011 when Obama, Reid and Pelosi were all set to sign off on one, but Boehner reneged when his Caucus balked at $800 billion in taxes.

Boehner came to Washington, it is my impression, not so much to promote the broad conservative social agenda as to fulfill the reliable, four word GOP message theme which has worked so effectively for close to 40 years: Less Government, Lower Taxes. And Republicans have largely won that debate among much of the electorate since the Reagan years.

It is amazing how the motive for his resignation has been misread by so much of the press. In account after account, analysts have asserted that he sacrificed his speakership so that a deal to keep the government open could be reached.

No, that is wrong. He isn’t stepping down to allow a bargain to be reached. He is stepping down precisely because he intends to cut a deal with Democrats to keep the government open while he is still Speaker, and then get out of Dodge before all hell breaks loose. He recognizes it would be infinitely more difficult for the coterie of inexperienced, dogmatic, backbench second raters he leaves in charge in his wake to cut a deal by October 1, so he will do it and leave them to figure out how to avoid calamity in three months when the CR expires.

Boehner’s departure and the coming conservative chaos is a blessing for congressional Democrats and Hillary Clinton on many levels. The three-ring circus that will have the untested Kevin McCarthy as ringleader should help Democrats in the House and Senate to make the case that one party in Washington is incapable of making government function, and it isn’t the Democrats. The Republicans might even get that shutdown they are praying mightily for. Democrats don’t have to do much to establish themselves as the “reasonable alternative” except behave halfway reasonably and plead for cooperation and reconciliation, even if they loathe the thought of working with the Republicans.

Hillary Clinton benefits as well because she can portray herself as the beacon of reasonableness in contrast to a Congress that is led (and could be again, we won’t know until after the election) by manifestly incompetent and uncooperative adolescents. Maturity will start to look like a highly desirable attribute. If the irascible Republicans are going to be in charge of Congress, many voters will rightly conclude we need a President who can counteract or balance them, not more of the same in the White House. That’s a tough case for the Republican presidential candidates to make; none of them want to look like they are chastising their own legislative allies, but it is a simple argument for Clinton. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? She’s the ticket.

The chances of Republicans self-correcting after exorcizing themselves of Boehner are slim to none. It is not my experience in politics that those who have just hung a trophy on the wall see any reason to alter their successful behavior. Quite the opposite. As with their general Orwellian view, the Tea Partiers believe “Failure = Success,” and if the resulting chaos alienates voters from politics, that suits them just fine. They believe they are reflecting the will of the American people, not confounding it.   “It was not an inside force that pushed the Speaker out,” said Boehner opponent Thomas Massie (R-KY), “the American people spoke.”

So I think back to that New Yorker cartoon and suspect that just as it described Boehner’s frustrated motivation for coming to Washington in 1990, it describes his exasperated departure as well. I can almost hear him saying, “First the Tea Party challenged my election as Speaker; then they shut down the government; then they blocked my Grand Bargain; then they forced me to plead with Democrats to pass all the essential bills. Dammit, I’m quitting Congress!” Who can blame him?

Thanks for all the comments on my op ed in the New York Times on September 26. JAL