The announcement last Friday that John Boehner is retiring as speaker of the House was a surprise, but it wasn't a shock, as Marc Ambinder noted. Boehner seemed almost universally disliked — especially within his own caucus —and certainly never seemed to enjoy the job. Ted Cruz's characteristically classless send-off seemed to speak for the many conservatives who openly loathed Boehner.
Well, I'm a conservative — and a member of the Tea Party. And I still want to praise John Boehner, who almost certainly did as well as anybody could have done in a no-win position.
First, it seems nearly impossible not to like the guy. And I say this not just because I am a fellow easy-crier, though that plays a role. Boehner's tendency to shed tears, remember, first came to national attention during his victory speech when he became speaker. He choked up speaking about "economic freedom, individual liberty, and personal responsibility." Boehner is an actual believer in conservative principles — though he may sometimes disagree with other conservatives about how to translate those principles into policy — which for a Republican Washington insider is a big deal.
And it's not just conservative principles that the Ohio Republican believes in. Read this story about Boehner being moved to tears by the memory of being asked by Pope Francis to pray for him. It's the story of a former altar boy who was truly deeply moved by meeting the pope, on a purely human level, with the political calculations securely in the background.
Boehner is a good, likeable man. But that's not all it takes to be a good speaker.
We all know that Washington, and America, are more polarized than ever. In this context, with an aggressively divided government, and a strong extremist contingent in his caucus, Boehner found himself unable either to cut deals with the center or the left, or to win scalps or victories for the far right.
As Ross Douthat has noted, Boehner's job basically entailed constant crisis management, and at this aspect of the job he excelled. Most of the forces around him — the Tea Party, Democrats, the White House, the media — have been hostile, and yet he has managed to keep an impressively large number of plates spinning and balls up in the air. Plans to extract an ObamaCare repeal by shutting down the government were misguided (and I say this as someone who supported them at the time), and Boehner was right to oppose them and to salvage whatever could be salvaged.
Now why am I, as a Tea Party conservative, so willing to cut Boehner slack?
The main reason is that his job was difficult not only because of structural realities — polarization, the expanding entitlement state and the unwillingness of the political class to confront it, the U.S. constitutional system — but also, sadly, because of the incompetence of my own side.
The main reason why Tea Party conservatives in the House have been so feckless is not because "the establishment" has it in for them (though it does, and that plays a role), it's because, as Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, they don't know what they want. You know, other than repealing ObamaCare and replacing it with WHAT'S THAT, I CAN'T HEAR YOU, MY SIGNAL IS DROPPING.
Had the Tea Party caucus in Congress actually coalesced around an actual agenda, like the one suggested by perhaps the smartest Tea Party member of Congress, Mike Lee, or a religious liberty bill, or, say, a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood and extend tax credits to companies that offer maternity leave, or really, anything, they might have gotten it passed. The main reason why the Tea Party caucus in Congress has always found itself wrongfooted, always reacting, whether it is to ObamaCare or Planned Parenthood, is because it doesn't have its act in order and because it doesn't know what it wants.
Managing such an unruly force while keeping his eyes fixed on conservative principles makes John Boehner, in my book, an American hero. I'll miss him.