John Boehner and the 'false prophets' of the GOP

John Boehner at a more hopeful time, taking the oath of office after being re-elected Speaker of the House in January. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

I’m now frantically looking for a place to live in New York, so I know something about unrealistic expectations. Alas, I can’t shut down the federal government to express my frustration about rising rents and the near-certainty that my days of having a washer/dryer in my bathroom are about to end.

The abrupt resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives is almost universally blamed on the impossible standards of his fellow Republicans. GOP members mostly come from districts that voted overwhelmingly against President Barack Obama, and a lot of them blame the Speaker for the continued existence of “Obamacare,” the president’s decision to curtail the deportation of undocumented migrants and other White House policy successes. Before Mr. Boehner announced he was quitting, one day after Pope Francis addressed Congress, many Republican members groused that he wasn’t doing enough to defund Planned Parenthood, even though any such attempt would face a filibuster from Senate Democrats and a veto from President Obama.

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When asked by John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” whether the no-compromise members of his party (sometimes called the Freedom Caucus, but given the names of the Blackmail Caucus and the more nihilistic Suicide Caucus by detractors) had impossible goals, Mr. Boehner replied, “Absolutely, they’re unrealistic!... You know, the Bible says beware of false prophets, and there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done.”

It’s never clear whether false prophets create fantasies or exploit the fantasies that people already cherish. When The New York Times interviewed Mr. Boehner’s own constituents after his resignation announcement, they found a “die-hard conservative” who had always voted for the Speaker but was overjoyed to see him go: “I think Boehner was a disgrace to the conservative movement. He came to Obama on everything, and he never put up a fight. He was elected as a conservative, and then he turned into a liberal.” When did this view gain currency among Republican voters: when the Obama administration's stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act both passed Congress over the unanimous opposition of House Republicans? Or was it when President Obama was elected in 2008? Or was it Newt Gingrich who encouraged no-compromise thinking in the 1990s?

There’s also the “echo chamber” of a more partisan media landscape, as well “I didn’t come here to make friends” ethos of competitive reality-TV shows. That brings us to The Apprentice host Donald Trump, still leading in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination but by an increasingly small margin. The Trump campaign is one big unrealistic expectation, as he showed again in an interview with Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes.” Mr. Trump vowed to, among other things, tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, and was reminded by his interviewer that a president’s actions are limited by the Constitution, Congress and the Supreme Court; to each item, the candidate simply responded, “We’ll see.” Mr. Pelley pointed out, “You’re not used to working in an environment like that,” and asked, “Who tells you ‘no’?” The non-response: “I do it all the time. Not that many people—I do it all the time.” He sounds like a Speaker of the House who would be popular with Republican members; no wonder that presidential candidate and Senate troublemaker Ted Cruz has been relatively uncritical of Mr. Trump.

As Pope Francis told Congress last week, “A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces.” (See America’s Sam Sawyer, S.J., on “John Boehner’s Legislative Vocation, and Ours.”) This has always been a challenge in the United States, where we admire someone who “stands firm” and “holds his ground.” A stubborn consistency is even more valued today, when everyone is urged to develop a steady personal brand (like Trump’s), and when it’s easier for political candidates to raise ever-increasing sums of money by boasting of their you-can-count-on-me, no-compromise ideology. The American electorate has long looked askance at legislative leaders who, if they do their jobs, must initiate dialogue rather than indulge in grandstanding. (The only leader of a congressional chamber to win a presidential nomination over the past 50 years was Bob Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996.) The ability of future legislative leaders to get things done, rather than go along with the unrealistic demands of back-benchers, will depend on what kind of candidates the voters reward in 2016.

Postscript: The Republican Party is more commonly associated with obstructionism today in the United States, in part because its control of Congress is based on “safe” districts with narrow interests—as opposed to the Democratic Party, which has an edge in appealing to national interests and winning presidential elections but does poorly at other levels of government, seemingly unable to win elections unless the demographics are strongly in their favor. But those roles could be reversed some day, and in the United Kingdom, it seems to be the leftist party that has trouble with realism in governing.  

Take a look at the thoughts of the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane on the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the U.K’s Labour Party earlier this month: “The fact that [former prime minister and Labour leader Tony] Blair won three general elections, granting Labour its most sustained period of government in the modern era, is not just an inconvenient truth. To the Corbynite left, it demonstrates his perfidy, for only an accommodating scoundrel—a thinly disguised Tory, and a disgrace to the socialist faith—would be happy to shape and shrink his opinions until they fitted the capitalist mold.” Sounds like the “Corbynite” Labour Party members might sympathize with the congressional Republicans furious at a leader who dared to recognize political reality.

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