The End of the Boehner Era

I’ve probably said enough about the conditions under which John Boehner gave up his Speaker’s gavel and resigned his House seat. And I’m still a bit amazed at his success in getting a budget deal signed and through the House even as he was packing up his golf clubs.

But since we probably won’t have much reason to talk about the Orange Man after this weekend, it’s worth noting again how his career reflects the evolution–or devolution–of the GOP.

Boehner made his bones in Congress very quickly as a sidekick to Newt Gingrich (although having failed to stab Newt in the back, he had to do some time in leadership purgatory). He was considered a solid if not fiery ideologue until quite recently. Indeed, he ascended to the House Majority Leader gig that positioned him for the Speakership because he was considered a more reliable enemy of earmarking and domestic spending than the man he beat, Roy Blunt.

Yet if you look at Boehner’s legislative career, there’s really just one major accomplishment: he was the primary House Republican cosponsor of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, which within just a few years became an abomination to conservative ideologues (note how many presidential candidates last night called explicitly or implicitly for elimination of any federal role in education policy). And from beginning to the very end his Speakership was characterized by alternatively cowering towards and out-maneuvering people who persistently believed a government shutdown would wind up being popular and a debt default would be a bracing tonic to a freeloader economy.

It’s obvious that Boehner is less ideologically rigorous than his successor. But that would not necessarily have been obvious earlier in the Ohioan’s career. Perhaps being at the peak of power mellowed him or even corrupted him. Or perhaps the definition of being a “true conservative” keeps changing, to the point where even Paul Ryan is suspect. Lucky for Boehner, his days of trying to keep one step ahead of the conservative zeitgeist are over. As a lobbyist, he’ll take orders from his clients, and his success or failure can and will be measured by his bank balance.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.