“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”
— “The Lord of the Flies”
So where does all this end? No one seems to have an answer to that one.
Nobody believes that John Boehner’s forced departure as speaker resolves any of the tensions within the Republican Party or between the Republicans and Democrats. Quite the contrary, the scent of blood is in the water and the sharks are looking forward to their next feeding. (Mitch McConnell, anyone?) In addition, nobody expects that Boehner’s presumed replacement, Kevin McCarthy of California, will be able to guide his caucus through challenges that caused the more wily and experienced Boehner to throw up his hands in frustration.
In the short term, Boehner indicated on “Face the Nation” Sunday, the government will be funded and we’ll avoid a Oct. 1 shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. He’s willing to put together a temporary coalition of Democrats and more mainstream Republicans to ensure that at least that much is accomplished before heading to the golf course. “I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn,” he said. “I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there.”
While that’s laudable, it’s an understatement to describe this as a “dirty barn.” With its 14 percent job-approval rating and inability to perform even basic functions, Congress has become a veritable Augean stables, and no Hercules is available to cleanse it. With a month left in office and his power waning, for example, it’s uncertain whether Boehner will have the time or the votes needed to also raise the nation’s debt-ceiling, the next looming crisis on the Washington calendar with the potential to cause immense damage. Even if he does, the rogue Republican minority would soon grasp some other opportunity to bring the whole thing crashing down, as appears to be their goal.
In his “Face the Nation” appearance, Boehner gave us a pretty good idea of just how small that minority is, and also why it wields such disproportionate power. We get into a bit of a numbers game here, but hang with me, it’s important:
Boehner told John Dickerson that if he had decided to stay and fight for the speaker’s gavel, he would have won easily, garnering some 400 of the 435 total votes in the House. Even if we assume that Boehner’s prediction is a little self-serving, he’s almost certainly correct that he would have had considerable padding above the 218 votes needed to remain speaker.
The problem is, where would those votes have come from? The only way Boehner could even approach 400 votes would have been to ask Democrats to join mainstream Republicans in supporting him. A lot of Democrats probably would have been willing to do so — Boehner and Nancy Pelosi had clearly discussed the possibility. And if Boehner had taken that course, the 35 to 50 anti-Boehner conservatives in the House would have been left fuming, exposed and abandoned as the rump minority that it really is.
Yet that was also the step that Boehner dared not take, because he understands that by abandoning his party’s hard-core right he would have split the GOP caucus and split the party. He felt he had no choice but to remain loyal to an element in his party that takes pride in showing no sign of loyalty in return, and that refusal is the source of their power: They are willing to risk the destruction of their party while Boehner and others are not. So to keep some semblance of peace, the rebels are allowed to set the agenda. As U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) put it, “the crazies have taken over the party.”
As Boehner also explained Sunday, he recognizes that those Republicans who dared to publicly support him as speaker would have been castigated as traitors by conservative media and interest groups that have been driving this process all along, a spectacle that he also wanted to avoid. “Why do I want to make my members, Republican members, walk the plank?” as he put it.
However, Boehner went on to sharply criticize those in his own party and movement whom he called “false prophets.” As he noted, “we have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know — they know — are never going to happen.”
Those “false prophets” range from politicians such as Ted Cruz, radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, media outlets such as Breitbart and Fox News and activist groups such as the Tea Party and Heritage Action. Together, they have created a perpetual frustration machine that cannot ever accept compromise or agreement because compromise and agreement would destroy their business model. It’s what they feed upon. They exist to create expectations that can never be met, then reap the benefits of that frustration. That will not change, and they are not going away.
What must and will change, eventually, is the power that they wield. The trajectory that they demand of the Republican Party is unsustainable, and the split that Boehner avoided by stepping down has only been temporarily delayed. At some point, important elements of the party will decide that they can no longer pay the blackmail that is demanded of them by the ultra-conservatives, and at that point we’ll learn how this will end.