Several theories have been suggested for the timing of John Boehner’s sudden announcement that he has decided to relinquish his position as the third most important official in the government. (At least, as Speaker of the House, he would so rank by being second-in-line, behind the Vice-President, in the succession hierarchy.)
One theory is that he dropped the news on a Friday afternoon, which is when all news is dropped when those dropping it are trying to avoid a lot of press coverage. If you want a big splash, you either announce your news on the Sunday talk shows or in a Monday press briefing. But that theory doesn’t really wash, since Boehner wasn’t trying to hide. In fact, he went on the Sunday talk shows two days later.
Another theory is that he was somehow motivated by the Pope’s address to Congress just the day before. Boehner is known to be a devout Catholic. Maybe the Pope gave him the word from on high in a private chat. Or maybe he got divine guidance by virtue of the Pope’s mere presence. Or maybe he took a page from the current Pope’s predecessor, who stepped down from his post even though his election was supposedly for life (that being the expectation, at least, when the Cardinals send up the white smoke, or so I’m told).
I’m less inclined to dismiss that second theory, but in the end, I think Boehner just decided he had put up with enough anger and disapproval and that he was fed up with the whole mess the House had become during the years of his stewardship. Hey, he was well into his fifth year at the helm, which is longer than one-term presidents serve. Never mind that some of his predecessors have literally died on the job (most recently Sam Rayburn in 1961 after serving seventeen years).
You’d be justified in assuming that the anger and disapproval of Boehner had come from the other side of the aisle or that the mess he’s leaving behind is due to strident opposition from the Democrats in the chamber. But the bitter truth is that it’s the members of Boehner’s own party who have found him unacceptable and have effectively forced him out. Not all of them; but enough of them.
Of the 247 Republicans who currently make up the majority in the House of Representatives, only sixty or so have made Mr. Boehner’s job a nightmare. These are the most conservative members of his caucus. They religiously follow the tea party mantra of “the less government the better.” They comprise the wing that opposes all government spending (save for defense) and that opposes just about every government program (save, perhaps, for a stricter immigration policy). They do not believe in compromise; they may not even believe in the very necessity of their jobs.
They are the wing of their party that will not even flinch when threatening a government shutdown if Planned Parenthood is funded even one dollar of federal funds; or that would willingly see the country go into default on its debt payments if a balanced budget is not passed; or that would filibuster the nomination of a Treasury secretary because the nominee at some point in the distant past advocated for a tax increase.
Make no mistake: John Boehner is a rock-solid conservative by almost any measure, except for the measure taken by the far-right wing of his caucus and his party. Today’s far right extremists not only don’t believe that Barack Obama was born in this country; they don’t believe he is a Christian (as he professes). What they do believe about Obama is that he is a Muslim jihadist who is bent on destroying the United States and making it an Islamic State in the Western Hemisphere.
The picture you should have of these people (who, by the way, may represent a sizeable segment of the rank-and-file of the GOP) is that they are a dangerous mix of ideological extremism and stone-cold ignorance. That kind of mix is awkward, if not offensive, in a social setting; it’s just down-right scary in a political party; and it would be disastrous if it controlled the federal government.
And that possibility, remote though it still might be, is why Boehner’s resignation is more than just a weekend news blip, soon to be overshadowed by things like Vladimir Putin’s UN speech or Hillary Clinton’s latest e-mail apology.
Take a look at the dwindling field of Republican presidential candidates. Unlike past years, when the crazies were the first to drop out, it’s the supposedly mainstream candidates who are giving up. Scott Walker was supposed to be a mainstream alternative (more conservative, yes, but a guy with a legitimate agenda for governing the country) to Jeb Bush. He’s gone. So is Rick Perry. Say what you will about his intelligence, but he had at least governed Texas during a period of relative prosperity for the state.
The other mainstream GOP candidates are wallowing in single digits, while the three candidates who have never held elective office comprise over 50 percent of the support in the current polls. One of them is considered a pompous ass (or a buffoon, take your pick) by mainstream conservatives. Then there’s the neurosurgeon who believes the planet is 5,000 years old. And the women who drove the company she led into the ground is the most plausible of the three, even though she lost badly in her only prior attempt at elective office (in 2010 to Barbara Boxer in the Senate race in California).
This Republican Party is in trouble. And it is troubling. It’s in trouble because it has gone so extreme that it runs its own Speaker out of town. It’s troubling because it is supporting candidates for the nation’s highest office who would otherwise be a Saturday Night Live joke were one of them not likely to be the alternative to scandal-laden Hillary Clinton.
And so don’t shrug mildly at John Boehner’s resignation. It portends bad times ahead, for his party and for the country.