Live long enough and you meet all sorts of people. The “special events” producer at CNN, with her Emmy and all, had stories about how hard it was to cover things like political conventions and state visits. There were a thousand details to attend to – like that time the balloon drop at one of the conventions blocked all the cameras – and issues with the unions – electricians and stagehands and whatnot. It was more than who was where, saying what, to which camera, in which sequence. That’s the director’s job. The producer has to set everything up to make that possible, and Pope Francis’ trip to Manhattan would have driven her crazy.
She’s retired now but she must have watched, and must have seen the nightmare scenario play out. CNN’s coverage of Pope Francis’ visit was relatively flawless – no dead air, the right crews at the right places at the right time, with equipment that worked just fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was breaking news. Just as Pope Francis was about to address the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping arrived at the White House – his first state visit to the United States, and that included a whole lot of pageantry, because China matters a whole lot and things have been tense with them. That fife and drum corps in those powdered wigs was out again. CNN and MSNBC and CNBC and Fox News went to split-screen. China’s economy could ruin ours. This could be dicey. The “special event” up in New York wasn’t that special anymore.
Maybe it wasn’t even news. There was the pope at the United Nations:
During a sweeping address before the United Nations, Pope Francis called on the international community to combat environmental degradation and social injustice, and praised the Iran nuclear deal as “proof of the potential of political good will.”
Pope Francis, the fourth leader of the Catholic Church to address the U.N., used the occasion of Friday’s speech before the General Assembly to highlight signature themes of his pontificate.
In other words, this wasn’t news – he was saying what he had been saying before – although there were curious details:
The pope, who has said the use of armed force against Islamic State might be legitimate if exercised on a multilateral basis, echoed the Vatican’s criticism of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – and his own opposition to U.S. airstrikes in Syria a decade later – by warning against intervention that ignores international law and the need for “negotiation, mediation and arbitration.”
When the U.N. charter is “considered simply as an instrument to be used whenever it proves favorable, and to be avoided when it is not, a true Pandora’s Box is opened, releasing uncontrollable forces,” he said.
Yeah, yeah – we know that now. We went to the United Nations. Dick Cheney got his war. The Middle East blew up. That wasn’t news either, but it was a fine speech – and then all tracking-shots of the Pope Francis off to his next stop – the World Trade Center memorial a few miles south – were bumped for a lingering shot of a white wall and four American flags and an empty podium. As President Xi and President Obama were sizing each other up in the sunshine on the steps of the White House, as Pope Francis was speaking to the General Assembly, the news broke that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, the third in line to the presidency, the Republican who had tried to keep his Tea Party crowd from doing anything too stupid, and often failed, was resigning. He would no longer be Speaker – he didn’t want the job anymore. In fact, he was resigning from Congress at the end of October.
No one saw this coming. The cable network news producers didn’t see this coming – much of what they had carefully set up went to waste – but John Boehner was going to explain what the hell was happening at that empty podium any minute now. That was a false alarm. Boehner is a devout Catholic. He was the one that finally convinced his pope to address Congress, just the day before. He has tremendous respect for the pope. He wasn’t going to step on Pope Francis’ address to the General Assembly. It could wait, but he did resign:
Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio barkeeper’s son who rode a conservative wave to one of the highest positions in government, said Friday he would relinquish his gavel and resign from Congress, undone by the very Republicans who swept him into power. Mr. Boehner, 65, made the announcement in an emotional meeting with his fellow Republicans on Friday morning as lawmakers struggled to avert a government shutdown next week, a possibility made less likely by his decision.
And this is the part that drives news producers crazy:
Mr. Boehner told almost no one of his decision before making it Friday morning. “So before I went to sleep last night, I told my wife, I said, ‘You know, I might just make an announcement tomorrow,'” Mr. Boehner said at a news conference in the Capitol. “This morning I woke up, said my prayers, as I always do, and thought, ‘This is the day I am going to do this.'”
But it had to be done:
Fond of saying “I’m a regular guy with a big job,” Mr. Boehner struggled almost from the moment he became speaker in 2011 to manage the challenges of divided government while holding together his fractious and increasingly conservative Republican members.
The tension has spilled over into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, in which several candidates have openly derided Republican leaders in Congress like Mr. Boehner. The loud and potent voices in the House largely reflect the steady shift of power in the Republican Party base from places like Mr. Boehner’s suburban Cincinnati district to areas that are largely Southern, rural and white.
The Republican Party isn’t what it used to be, but at least his final gesture will be to keep the lights on:
Most recently, Mr. Boehner was trying to devise a solution to keep the government open through the rest of the year, but was under pressure from conservatives who told him that they would not vote for a bill that provided funding for Planned Parenthood.
Mr. Boehner’s announcement lessened the chance of a government shutdown because Republican leaders joined by Democrats will almost certainly go forward with a short-term funding measure to keep the government operating, and the speaker will no longer be deterred by those who threatened his job.
And there was that other final gesture:
Mr. Boehner’s announcement came just a day after Pope Francis visited the Capitol, fulfilling a 20-year dream for Mr. Boehner, who hails from a large Catholic family, of having a pontiff address Congress. Mr. Boehner wept openly as the pope addressed an audience gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol on Thursday. He no doubt understood that it was his last grand ceremony as speaker and a capstone to a long political career that began in the Ohio Statehouse and led to a seat in Congress in 1990.
His work is done, but that’s a worry:
Mr. Obama said Friday that Mr. Boehner’s resignation took him by surprise. Saying he called Mr. Boehner moments before holding a news conference with President Xi Jinping of China, he praised the speaker as a “good man” and a “patriot.” The president said that though they had often disagreed, Mr. Boehner had “always conducted himself with civility and courtesy with me.” Mr. Obama promised to “reach out immediately” to the next speaker. …
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, learned about Mr. Boehner’s resignation when she read a breaking news alert on a staff member’s phone. “God knows what’s next over there,” she told staff members. Ms. Pelosi, who had been privately negotiating on a plan to keep the government open, told reporters that Mr. Boehner’s resignation was “a stark indication of the disarray of House Republicans.”
Ah, but there were other reactions:
At the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, which was taking place a few blocks from the Capitol, many jumped to their feet and cheered when Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, announced that Mr. Boehner was resigning. “It’s time to turn the page,” Mr. Rubio said, deviating from his prepared text in an assertion tailored to the audience, whose views align with many who wanted to oust Mr. Boehner.
Addressing reporters after his remarks at the conservative summit meeting, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas spoke harshly of Mr. Boehner.
“The early reports are discouraging,” Mr. Cruz said. “If it is correct that the speaker, before he resigns, has cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to fund the Obama administration for the rest of this year, to fund Obamacare, to fund executive amnesty, to fund Planned Parenthood, to fund implementation of this Iran deal, and then presumably to land a cushy K Street job after joining with the Democrats to implement all of President Obama’s priorities, that is not the behavior one would expect from a Republican speaker of the House.”
While there are certainly internecine and factional rivalries in the Democratic Party, it’s all but impossible to imagine the outpouring of celebration, schadenfreude and smackdowning that is greeting the retirement of Speaker John Boehner. Even a kind word on the day of his retirement appears beyond the ability of most of those he led. Yes, there’s been base clamoring against Nancy Pelosi and even more at certain times with Harry Reid. But it simply doesn’t compare to the angry joy we’re seeing now toward a quarter-century member of the House. …
Of course, it is of a piece with Boehner’s tenure – a largely reviled and half-effective, never-ending and seldom-lauded effort to keep half his caucus from carrying through with the latest ridiculously self-defeating and often country-damaging gambit. Boehner’s whole Speakership was, in a real sense, a permanent exercise in indignity. So the ending is not surprising.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie says the ending is not surprising for another reason:
John Boehner ends his career a conservative. He helped craft the Contract with America with Newt Gingrich, and stood on the right flank of the House Republican caucus for most of his career. After Barack Obama took office, Boehner immediately moved to opposition, accusing him of “snuffing out” the America he knew and comparing politics in 2010 to America’s fight against Great Britain. “There’s a political rebellion brewing,” he said, “and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since 1776.” When, galvanized by this kind of rhetoric, the Tea Party wave swept conservatives into office – a second Republican Revolution – he was the obvious choice, winning a unanimous vote for speaker-designate ahead of the official election for speaker of the House. After 20 years in office, he was finally at the pinnacle of congressional power.
But then the revolution spiraled out of control. The Tea Party conservatives elected in 2010 weren’t interested in governing as much as destroying President Obama’s agenda. Everything – even routine governance – was second to the war on the president. And given his rhetoric, they expected Boehner to go along for the ride. Before 2011 the debt ceiling was an easy excuse for showmanship. Politicians would posture against raising the federal limit on debt, and after everyone was finished, Congress would raise it. Conservatives wanted to use the limit as leverage for cutting government, and they pressured Boehner into doing just that. If Obama wouldn’t slash spending, then Republicans would cap the debt, causing a default and spiking the economy into the ground.
That’s where it all fell apart, as he couldn’t control the monster he has created:
Boehner provoked the standoff and then tried to defuse it with a long-term debt deal. But conservatives – led by then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor – wouldn’t yield, and he abandoned negotiations. If not for a last-minute bill to make automatic cuts to federal spending, the United States would have reneged on its debt, causing an economic crisis. It was an extraordinarily risky gamble that hurt the economy even as it fulfilled some Republican objectives. Still, conservatives weren’t satisfied.
Of course they weren’t satisfied, but should have been:
What’s striking is Boehner never supported Obama or his policies. He opposed the stimulus, voted against the Affordable Care Act, and – by all accounts and measures was in the right wing of the Republican Party. But he was also an institutionalist…
For three years conservatives used deadlines as leverage, and Boehner struggled to lead Republicans to a resolution that protected his position from unruly conservatives and left the country mostly unscathed. This brinksmanship is how we got the “fiscal cliff” fight, the October 2013 shutdown over Obamacare, and the February 2015 fight over Homeland Security funding and immigration. To show his mettle to the most conservative Republicans, Boehner provoked a crisis or confrontation. And when it was clear the administration wouldn’t budge, he capitulated, telling members that he did his best.
They hated him for that, but Bouie thinks they missed the point:
What’s amazing about all of this is the degree to which Boehner and his team have actually delivered conservative policy. Under his leadership, congressional Republicans have slashed federal spending – achieving $3.2 trillion in cuts – and blocked important parts of Obama’s agenda, like comprehensive immigration reform. Despite this, rank-and-file Republicans hate him. According to a new survey from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 72 percent of GOP primary voters are dissatisfied with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, including the 36 percent who want them “immediately removed” from their posts.
Boehner seems to have gotten tired of this:
Spurred by controversial (and heavily criticized) videos released this summer, House conservatives want government to end funding for Planned Parenthood, despite no evidence of misconduct or criminal activity and the long-standing ban on federal funds for abortion. If Republican leaders don’t budge, then those Republicans – and their allies in the Senate – will shut down the government.
Once again, Boehner would have to fight a losing battle for the sake of defusing an intransigent minority. Once again, he’d be maligned for making a deal. But this time, he refused. Rather than indulge and debase himself for the most extreme people in his caucus, he quit. In the short term, this takes a shutdown off the table – Boehner will stay in power through the deadline for funding the government, and will likely cut a deal with Democrats to keep things going.
Then he’ll hand off the job to some other chump, not that it will make any difference:
His likely successor is current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy is just as conservative as Boehner and will face the same pressures as his predecessor. Put differently, the same Tea Party revolution that elevated Boehner and Eric Cantor eventually ended their careers. If McCarthy follows their path, and doesn’t bend to conservative demands, then the revolution might devour him, too.
There is a revolution, as CNN notes this:
Boehner’s departure might be the conservative right’s most famous get yet – even bigger than the coup against his former lieutenant Eric Cantor in a primary election in 2014. And the reaction to his resignation crystallized the split in the GOP with conservatives emboldened and establishment candidates sounding a softer tone that seems increasingly out of step with primary voters.
“You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, a GOP presidential candidate and self-styled scourge of Washington asked right-leaning activists at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday. “Yesterday John Boehner was Speaker of the House. Y’all come to town and somehow that changes. My only request is can you come more often!”
That’s nasty. That’s Cruz. But Cruz is only one of many:
Conservative groups aligned with the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus were quick to claim that Boehner’s decision showed they had defeated the more moderate elements of the party. Citizen’s United President David Bosse declared that Boehner’s exit was a “victory for grassroots conservatives.”
FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon linked the Cantor and Boehner ousters and proclaimed: “the tide is changing in Washington.” He pledged the group would force the next set of House leaders to “adhere to conservative principles.”
Donald Trump, who is positioning himself as the ultimate outsider and galvanizing grassroots conservatives to power his anti-establishment crusade, said Boehner’s announcement showed that it was time “to get back to business.”
“We want people that are going to get it done,” he said addressing Boehner’s decision at the Washington summit where he arrived carrying his Bible.
Peter King, the Republican congressman from New York, doesn’t see it that way:
King said Boehner’s departure was essentially “throwing raw meat” to “small but loud faction” of the GOP and was bad news for the party.
“It signals that crazies have taken over the party,” King told CNN. “This has never happened before in our country. Where a person doing a job, the Speaker of the House, was removed from office, by a small faction because they want these unreasonable demands that if you don’t agree with them you shut the government down. This is insanity.”
Maybe so, but Ian Millhiser sees the problem as structural:
The United States is unusual among modern democracies because we elect our executive separately from our legislature – a system known as “presidential democracy.” Unlike a parliamentary system where the executive is chosen by the governing coalition within the legislature, America has three separate elected power centers which frequently are not all controlled by just one party. This is the reason for the gridlock that has seized Washington since Republicans regained the House in 2011 – gridlock that caused a government shutdown in 2013 and could easily cause another one next month.
In presidential democracies that may be inevitable:
As the late political scientist Juan Linz explained in a famous essay, both the party that controls the executive and the party that controls the legislature have equal claims to democratic legitimacy, there’s no “democratic principle” that allows one party or the other to claim a greater mandate from the people, and “the mechanisms the constitution might provide” to resolve an impasse “are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” As Linz ominously warns, this can lead to a collapse of the democratic system. “It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power.”
So when Republican hardliners express frustration with the fact that they are unable to advance its agenda, they are not making a frivolous complaint. Republicans owe their majority in the House to a valid election (although the size of their majority is almost certainly inflated by gerrymandering) and can legitimately claim that President Obama’s refusal to implement their agenda was a refutation of the election that brought House Republicans to power.
The only problem with this complaint is that it works equally well for President Obama. He can just as easily claim that Republican refusal to implement the White House’s ideas is a refutation of his own election to the White House. And, even more importantly, Obama has the power to veto bills. If Boehner wanted must-pass legislation such annual appropriations or debt ceiling hikes to become law, he had to cut a deal with the president, and that meant sticking a thumb in Republican hardliner’s eyes every single time.
The Linz essay is here – it’s dense and scholarly – but the point here is that Boehner was in a no-win situation and had been doing his best:
More than four years into Boehner’s speakership, it’s a miracle that he managed to navigate this landscape for as long as he did – and there is little wonder why he’s ready to abandon this job. In the short term, moreover, the fact that Boehner will not resign for more than a month is good news for the nation’s economy because if gives him a lame duck period where he can pass one more bill to fund the government – most likely relying heavily on Democratic votes – before leaving the task of managing his unruly caucus to the next sucker. … But Boehner can only put off the next potential shutdown (or debt ceiling breach) for so long. The next time this battle arises, Boehner will not be around to navigate the treacherous path that leads to the government remaining open.
There’s no guarantee that anyone else can walk this path.
Perhaps no one can walk that walk, and that was the third news story of the day – Boehner quit, as the Republican Party tore itself apart, because a structural problem in our political system makes gridlock eventually inevitable, and there’s no fixing that. Oh, and that Chinese fellow was at the White House, and the pope was in Manhattan – and CNN and the rest had to scramble to cover it all. Which story means more than the other two? Time will tell.