John Boehner shocker: He will step down as House speaker and leave Congress at the end of October. And this may shock you, too: Boehner was very good at his job.
It isn’t clear yet why the speaker is leaving, though there have been reports in recent weeks of an attempt to oust him by House Freedom Caucus conservatives. It could be that his job really was in serious danger, though most scholars of Congress didn’t think so. Or it simply could be that Boehner had grown fed up with his own conference, and their demands for impossible results.
Either way, Republicans may quickly come to realize that Boehner was good at his job under difficult circumstances. With divided government, he never had a chance of realizing the core policy aims of Republicans (such as repealing Obamacare), but his conference was dominated by radicals who just wouldn’t accept the stalemate – and blamed him for it. Even so, he mostly managed to keep the wheels of government turning.
Within the House, he seemed to achieve the balance between party control and individual member opportunity that eluded many modern speakers. In that, he followed the example of his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, who was able to avoid emulating the overly centralized regimes of Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, or the weak leadership of Tom Foley and Denny Hastert. It’s worth noting, too, that Boehner’s Republicans avoided the stigma of corruption that marked the Hastert/Tom DeLay Republican House.
All in all, Boehner was an effective manager, and ranks among the best of the modern speakers.
But he did fail to change the basic dynamic of his conference, in which a small group of radicals dedicated to constantly proving themselves True Conservatives – even if it meant using suicidal tactics – dominated a much larger group of very conservative Republicans who were terrified of allowing any separation from the radicals. Yet very few Republican incumbents have been defeated in primaries during the tea party era: Four in 2014 and two in 2010 (excluding the redistricting year of 2012). the speaker also deserves good marks for dealing with the effects of that paranoia: the constant demands for brinkmanship over government shutdowns and debt limit breaches, for example. Perhaps it would be unfair to ask more of him.
It’s too early to tell whether Boehner’s succession will be relatively orderly, or become a full-out free-for-all. What is clear is that the speaker’s removal will do nothing to change the basic conditions that House Freedom Caucus Republicans claim to be upset about – that could only happen at the ballot box in November 2016. Boehner will steer the House through this shutdown showdown, but only with a temporary funding bill to run the government through some point in December. Then, the new House leadership will have to either begin real negotiations with the Democrats (and earn the wrath of the radicals), or return to unrealistic fantasies about how to govern, and risk a shutdown or worse.
In other words, we may all miss John Boehner soon.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.