Who would have thought that one of the tears that House Speaker John Boehner shed during Pope Francis’s address to Congress might have been for himself?
Boehner’s announcement that he would be leaving Congress next month “to protect the institution” was a thunderclap. He’d been planning it for a while, he said, with Nov. 17, his birthday, in mind. But, he said at a midday news conference Friday, “this morning, I woke up and I said my prayers, as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this.”
Why now? Boehner had faced down spitting-mad legislators in his caucus before, as he ricocheted between the establishment and tea party members, with the latter preparing to take the country to the brink of a government shutdown this month over their demand to defund Planned Parenthood.
Always hungry for Boehner’s scalp, the 40 firebrands in his caucus have been aboil over the failure of the party, in control of both Houses, to repeal Obamacare. They also raged about President Barack Obama’s ability to circumvent them on spending and on immigration, an issue that enrages voters in overwhelmingly white, aging, border-closing districts who fear “those people” taking their jobs, invading their schools and burdening city services. This feeling has only gotten stronger since Donald Trump has emerged as the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination. He’s a mirage, but his popularity with the base isn’t.
Boehner made it clear he wanted to govern, not shut down the government, which makes his party look bad. But he’d cried wolf before, predicting doom if the Tea Partiers had their way. Yet Republicans didn’t pay the price at the ballot box he predicted. They’re still in control, and then some.
The president interrupted his news conference with President Xi Jinping of China to praise the speaker as a “good man” who has “always conducted himself with courtesy and civility and kept his word.” Such sentiments confirm everything Boehner’s enemies suspected.
The latest Republican uprising has been simmering since July, when Representative Mark Meadow filed a motion to force the speaker to vacate his seat. “People feel that Washington, D.C., should be representative of their voice and not just a select few inside the Beltway,” Meadow said at the time. Had it come to a vote, Boehner might not have been able to get the 218 supporters he needed to keep his job. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi might have closed the gap with some Democrats, but that could have been worst than losing.
Unlike so many politicians who look in the mirror and believe in their ultimate invincibility (think Newt Gingrich), Boehner had been growing tired of the turmoil since at least 2014, when he stayed on to maintain continuity after his deputy, Eric Cantor, lost his seat. Boehner may actually believe in something larger than himself.
His likely successor as speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy, doesn’t have Boehner’s Ohio working-man glow, but gives off a whiff of California nice with a hint of moderation. He won’t please the barnburners for long.
One of Boehner’s problems was that he came from an older tradition where deals weren’t a dirty word. Like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he remembers the days when the best legislating got done in backrooms, even if these days Boehner would be the only person making it smoke-filled. He wanted to be in the pantheon of great speakers. He has a portrait of Nicholas Longworth in his office.
It was not to be. Boehner almost got through his news conference without crying, but when he told how the Pope grabbed his arm and asked him to pray for him, he broke down.
Earlier in the day, at the end of his speech to his caucus, he read the Prayer of St. Francis (“Where there is hatred, let me sow love”). If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t believe he meant it. But with his glass of Merlot and ultra-light smokes, his pleasure at getting out early for a round of golf, he remained the “regular guy” still astonished that the son of a bartender could even be in Congress, much less speaker. He had more heart than most and wore it on his sleeve Friday.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.