How Boehner Can Save His Legacy and His Party’s Soul

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Originally published 9/30/15

The palace intrigue within the Republican-led House of Representatives came to a climax on Friday as John Boehner announced, a day after accomplishing a career-long dream of hosting the Pope before a Joint Session of Congress, that he would be stepping down as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of October.

With the monkey (of tacking to his right for political survival) off his back, Boehner is expected to push through a bipartisan government funding bill that keeps Planned Parenthood funding intact and avoids a government shutdown. But paying the light bill isn’t exactly a valiant bow-out or a game changer for his party’s ailing long-term health. The country should implore Boehner to go a step further and bring the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill that he stalled in 2013, to a vote in the House, now that the motivation to sustain his own power is gone.

Boehner had thought about stepping down before, but said his calculus changed once his deputy and heir apparent, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was defeated in a primary challenge from the right. He decided to stay on for the sake of the establishment’s stability. Politico’s reporting on the eve of Boehner’s move puts the backstory in a nutshell:

After Pope Francis departed the Capitol on Thursday afternoon, Boehner met with the leaders of a conservative group that has threatened to try and overthrow him. The members of the House Freedom Caucus would not say whether they would attempt to strip Boehner of his gavel if he can’t block Planned Parenthood’s funding, although some hardliners have threatened to do so.

Like the rest of the establishment, the Speaker knew if the Republicans once again shut down the government over a partisan issue, they would lose all hope of showing the swing electorate that they could govern; adding to the likelihood that the GOP will lose the 2016 presidential election and risk losing many of its down-ticket congressional elections. He also knew that challenging the far right’s tactics which he’s acknowledged “never had a chance” could once and for all cost him his Speakership.

Finding himself stuck between a rock and a hard-right for the nth time, Boehner has opted to step down and hand the unwieldy gavel to some other poor soul (probably Kevin McCarthy).

Boehner’s press conference essentially announced that he was going to cry ‘uncle’ on his own terms, or at least his own timetable. “Just yesterday we witnessed the awesome sight of Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world, and I hope we will all heed his call to live by the Golden Rule,” Boehner said. “But last night, I started to think about this, and this morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this.”

But, the Speaker may not have been able to decipher the Pope’s prescribed manifestations of living by the Golden Rule over his own sniffles. Here’s an excerpt of the transcript for a refresher:

I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants ... On this continent ... thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12). This Rule points us in a clear direction ... the yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

To be fair, it should be equally noted that Pope Francis went on to preach that the Golden Rule applies to the unborn, who cannot advocate for themselves. Many of the anti-abortion interests aligned against Planned Parenthood genuinely fight for these unborn millions. But legislating is the art of picking battles and in this divided government Boehner cannot fight for what he and the Pope frame as the unborn’s right to life without shutting down the government, consequently harming the lives of millions of living American women and children.

Yet, Boehner can respond in a “humane, just and fraternal” way to the millions of undocumented immigrants in our midst. The prospect of bringing action on the issue is no political fairy-tale, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) outlined in a statement:

Despite Senate passage of an immigration reform bill last Congress, a small group of Republicans who oppose immigration were able to hold the rest of the House - and the country - hostage and prevent a House vote on immigration reform. There were sufficient House votes to get a bill to the President’s desk for signature, but they literally threatened Boehner’s job if he called the vote. With Speaker Boehner stepping down and his job no longer on the line, there is no reason not to have a vote. Speaker Boehner now has the opportunity to respond to the Pope’s moral call and rise above the racism and the xenophobia that is gripping the Republican Party and call the vote.

Gutierrez’s sentiments cannot be dismissed as only representative of liberals of color. Half of the 2013 Senate immigration bill’s ‘Gang of 8’ co-sponsors were Republicans: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ); Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC); Sen. John McCain (R-AZ); Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, mainstream rank-and-file conservatives, and the old guard (political veterans like McCain and Graham) - all members of Boehner’s subtribe - are in favor of immigration reform. Boehner did not bring the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill to a vote because of what’s known as the Hastert Rule: “For any legislation to pass the House it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members,” the speaker said in 2013. It’s namesake, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, calls it a misnomer.

And the Hastert Rule was not codified, it was self-imposed - and Boehner broke it thrice over for issues he deemed important enough, such as avoiding the fiscal cliff and passing the Violence Against Women Act. The rule was in truth a mechanism urged by the right and conveniently employed by Boehner that protected his speakership by ostensibly stripping him of the agency to legislate across the aisle. Or as Politifact frames it, “The Hastert Rule, essentially, is popular shorthand for a tactic to prevent political embarrassment.”

“If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of a sudden you’re not running the shop anymore. I think that’s what it comes down to,” Hastert told the National Review in 2013.

The difference for Boehner is that in the age of nihilist fringe factions, ‘running the shop’ has required running the government into the ground if the GOP doesn’t get its way. Boehner’s waffling was basic political math: the speaker is elected by a majority vote of his caucus; if he rubs enough of them the wrong way (which these days doesn’t take much), they can vote him out. The far right was often angered when Boehner broke the Hastert Rule; but when push came to shove, the Hastert Rule broke Boehner.

The fall-out from allowing the immigration bill to reach President Obama’s desk is nightmarish from Boehner’s vantage point. Working with Democrats and the White House to pass immigration would push the Freedom and Tea Party Caucuses to mutiny. The heads of right wing talking heads would explode. Demagogues would call him a traitor to (White) America. Put plainly, if the Speaker brought the immigration bill to a vote, at least half of the people in his party would hate him.

It’s easy for a liberal to tell Boehner to brush it off and ‘do the right thing’ - unlike Boehner they wouldn’t have to go on living in the same orbit as the people they pissed off. Nevertheless, the resignation brings about an important moment of truth for the Catholic Ohioan as to what he finds more important: riding off into the sunset, in the sunshine state, in the comfortable company of his white conservative social circle or legislating the dénouement of his career by the Golden Rule he so emotionally has extolled.

As the Washington Post editorial board forcefully put it, Boehner’s first commitment is not to “the institution,” as he argued, it is to the nation. The precise question is whether the last act of the Speaker’s time on stage in public service will be steered by ideologues and demagogues within his party or be anchored by pragmatism and inspired by empathy for undocumented families haunted by contradictory two-faced policies which, on the one hand, allow them to work as an underclass in our nation’s black market as nannies for wealthy families and as construction workers for contractors, but on the other hand, refuses them any path to citizenship.

Hand-wringing over what to do with the hard right should not bleed into the beginnings of a post-mortem sanctification, which paints Boehner as a martyr of the good ol’ days ‘when we solved our problems over a drink.’ As intractable as the intersection Boehner occupied may have been, let us be clear about his time as Speaker. Instead of legislating through some semblance of compromise, which admittedly would have riled his base beyond imagination, he opted to reign over a do-nothing congress and bent to the reckless tactics of brinkmanship.

This weekend on Face the Nation, Boehner again alluded to his faith: “The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there, you know, spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean this whole notion that we’re going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013 — this plan never had a chance,” he said. But according to whip counts and reporting on the Hill at the time, Boehner enabled the ‘false prophets’ by not allowing for a vote across party lines that, would have passed with Democrats’ help and ended the government shutdown. Burying facts like these now, would be a massive reporting failure.

Nobody envied Boehner’s position and no one can blame him for stepping down as a conscientious objector to “the crazies.” But we in the media would be dead wrong to make it seem as if his power has been somehow titular. Boehner simply, maybe understandably in some respects, just hasn’t had the bravery to be deeply disliked by his own.

In a news release, immigrant advocate Cristina Jimenez, director of United We Dream, called Boehner stepping down a “rearranging of the deck chairs on a sinking ship for Latino and immigrant support.”

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who has urged Republicans to take on immigration reform, demanded his party not acquiesce to its insurgent right flank. “I think whoever runs for speaker should make it clear that he’s not going to give in to these people. We’re not going to appease them,” he concluded. “The time for appeasement is over.”

In his last month, the Speaker has the power to bring a comprehensive immigration bill to a vote; a chance to become an exemplar of bipartisanship and a beacon of his Catholic creed’s Golden Rule. Half his party would hate him, but the nation - and his party if it wants to survive - would thank him in the long run.

When asked about advice for his successors Boehner had this to say: “Keep the country’s best interest in mind and have the courage to do what you can do. In our system of government, it’s not about Hail Mary passes.” But bringing the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill, that he himself stalled, to a vote wouldn’t be a Hail Mary; it would be a bold and democratic act of humanity. The yardstick that Time would use for John Boehner would reward him in the end. Problem is, he probably won’t do it.