Why conservatives hate John Boehner
Even his conservative accomplishments were not exactly beloved by the right
When Marco Rubio announced to the Values Voter Summit on Friday morning that House Speaker John Boehner was resigning, the crowd of social conservatives cheered. The Florida senator and 2016 presidential contender seemed to share the sentiment.
"I'm not here to bash anyone, but the time has come to turn the page," Rubio said. "It is time to turn the page and allow a new generation of leaders."
Fellow 2016er Sen. Ted Cruz had a similar shtick. "You want to know how much each of you terrifies Washington?" he asked the crowd of conservative activists. "Yesterday John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y'all come to town and somehow that changes. My only request is, can you come by more often?"
Some of this is self-serving. Both men are younger Republican leaders who have a personal stake in seeing the old guard shuffle off to retirement. And both are competing for a similar slice of conservative primary voters and playing to the same audience.
The fact that Boehner's impending departure is an applause line at conservative gatherings, however, is reflective of the Republican leadership crisis. Large parts of the base do not trust the party's leaders, do not believe they have GOP voters' best interests or conservative principles at heart, and would mourn their leaving office about as much when Barack Obama's presidency is over.
House speakers aren't often leaders of inspirational movements. They are usually legislative tacticians and enforcers of party discipline. Boehner is a survivor, having been booted from the leadership team in the 1990s only to claw back to the minority leader and then speaker's position.
But after the 2010 midterm elections, when Democrats lost the House while keeping the Senate and the presidency, Boehner found himself the ranking Republican in Washington. It's a role for which he was in many respects ill-suited.
If you compare Boehner's reign to that of disgraced former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, conservatives should consider it an improvement. Hastert, with the help of President George W. Bush, jacked up government spending and presided over a culture of earmarks and corruption. They authorized the Iraq war.
Under Boehner, the House helped deliver sequestration that put the brakes on explosive spending growth. He effectively ended earmarks. His fellow Republicans tried to stop a war in Libya and succeeded in averting one in Syria, though not always with the speaker's blessing.
Yet conservatives were looking for someone more like Newt Gingrich, albeit with better long-term results. They wanted someone who could communicate conservative principles and fight for the Republican platform. They wanted someone to beat Obama, as their presidential nominees couldn't do. They wanted someone to stop playing defense and go on offense against ObamaCare and a slew of liberal programs that offended them.
Even Boehner's conservative accomplishments were not universally beloved by the right. Many hawks detested sequestration's impact on defense spending, and were willing to trade away the budget caps. The earmarks ban was criticized as too loose by some conservatives, and too detrimental to getting things done on the House floor by some in the Republican establishment.
What Boehner mostly did as House speaker was rescue the more conservative members of his caucus from dire political miscalculations while offering little alternative vision of his own. That was never good enough for conservatives and became increasingly untenable as Boehner began to advance legislation with Democrats and a rump of Republicans.
Can conservatives do better at running the House and governing in general, or can they only function as an opposition party even when they are among the majority? Will they even get the opportunity to replace Boehner, or will he be succeeded by another establishment figure? Can the GOP ever resolve its leadership crisis?
Tea Party leader Mark Meckler crowed, "Boehner is gone, and we are still here." Now, perhaps, we'll see to what end.