Speaker of the House John Boehner is quitting, not just as speaker but as a member of Congress, and I don’t blame him for a minute. It’s a marvel that he lasted this long.
For more than four years now he has attempted to reconcile the unrealistic, unrelenting demands of the Republican base against the responsibility of actually governing this nation and trying to keep the system at least marginally functional. For four years he has attempted to protect his party from its worst instincts, and what has he gotten in return?
Accusations of betrayal and spineless leadership. Constant demands for his overthrow. Attacks on his conservative credentials, although to anybody outside the conservative movement he sure looked plenty conservative. And all this, from his supposed friends and supporters, those on his side of the aisle. It had to wear on him, and at times you could see plainly that it did.
“I didn’t need to be speaker because I needed a fancy title or a big office,” he once said. “I wanted to be speaker so I could lead an effort to deal with the serious issues that are facing our country.” The truth is that he never got that chance, again because of his own unruly majority, and instead becomes yet another GOP scalp taken by the GOP itself, another victim of its ongoing purge in pursuit of ideological purity.
Already the celebrations have begun, again from those with whom Boehner shared an ideology and a party. “(President Obama) has run circles around us since John Boehner was speaker of the House,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), told the Washington Post after the news broke. “I think it’s a victory for the American people.”
What now? Nobody really knows. But as Huelskamp demonstrates, there’s a powerful strain within the Republican Party that believes that it is one major, titanic confrontation away from remaking the country in its own radical vision, a confrontation that Boehner had fought hard to avoid because he believed it would be disastrous for his party and his country. He understood what too many in his party did not, that the fervent ardency of their belief was no substitute for broad public support. As he liked to remind people, he grew up in a barroom. He had probably witnessed firsthand what happens when false courage drives you to pick a fight that you won’t win.
So this is not just Boehner’s resignation as speaker: I suspect it is also Boehner’s resignation to the fact that the confrontation is going to come and he is no longer willing or able to stand in its way.