As Republicans scramble to anoint Rep. Paul Ryan as the successor for soon-to-be-former Speaker of the House John Boehner, it is worthwhile to examine precisely why the Ohio congressman’s tenure has been such a failure. After all, Boehner has reportedly been planning on resigning for a long time, even claiming that he had considered resigning as early as last November. His reasoning, then and now, was straightforward and reasonable: The staunch opposition of Tea Partyers and other hardline conservatives to his leadership had made it impossible for him to reclaim his current title next year without a prolonged and nasty fight.
Of course, if Boehner had been able to balance his conciliatory nature with a strong vision for his party and an even stronger grip – in the tradition of the best Speakers – he may not have found himself in this predicament in the first place.
To understand why this is the case, it’ll illustrative to look at the last two Speakers who presided when a president of the opposing party was in the White House. The last Republican to find himself in this situation was Newt Gingrich, who led a memorable GOP takeover of the House during the 1994 midterm elections that forced President Bill Clinton to deal with a hostile House for the last six years of his presidency. While Gingrich was hardly short of invective against Clinton (as his spearheading of the successful movement to impeach him later demonstrated), his focus during those contests was on unifying his party behind a clear ideological vision, the so-called “Contract with America.” Although he was later pressured into resigning after being blamed for his party’s setbacks in the 1998 midterm elections (to say nothing of his growing list of scandals and well-known massive ego problem), for a time he was able to unite his party into an effective counterweight against the Clinton administration.
It’s worth noting here that this did not mean Gingrich simply obstructed everything Clinton tried to accomplish. To be a truly effective Speaker, Gingrich needed a list of positive accomplishments, and that in turn necessitated collaborating with the president. As explained by Steven M. Gillon, the author of “The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation,” “they worked behind the scenes crafting significant legislation that had a positive impact on the economy. And they were doing so at great risk.” Gingrich even worked closely with Clinton behind the scenes to reform Social Security and Medicare, with each man attempting to form a centrist coalition despite knowing that doing so would alienate the stalwart bases in their respective parties (the Lewinsky scandal ultimately sabotaged their efforts).
Boehner’s immediate predecessor, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, took over as a liberal Democrat during the final two years of the Republican presidency of George W. Bush. Like Boehner, Pelosi had to deal with plenty of partisan overzealousness from within her own party, incurring the ire of the far left almost immediately by declaring that efforts to impeach Bush were “off the table.” Just as notably, she was able to find common ground with Bush on important issues like energy independence and the bank bailouts, something she has not been reluctant to point out when criticizing House Republicans’ current treatment of President Obama.
Although Pelosi didn’t come up with an ideological agenda akin to Gingrich’s Contract with America, she did exert her influence to shape her party in a similarly meaningful way. As the highest-ranking Democrat to oppose the 2002 Iraq War resolution – one whose chief opponent stakes his campaign against her on the grounds of the vote – Pelosi was frustrated that so many Democrats had failed to heed her warning about the impending invasion. Consequently she made it clear that her sympathies rested with then-Senator Obama (who had also opposed the 2002 resolution) over then-Senator Hillary Clinton (who had supported the resolution) during their close campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, even though political decorum prohibited her from making an official endorsement. The fact that she believed Clinton was a more divisive candidate than Obama, and as such would hurt the party’s chances in the general election, almost certainly strengthened her resolve.
When compared to Gingrich and Pelosi on the aforementioned grounds, Boehner consistently comes up short. Unlike Gingrich, Boehner never had a coherent ideological vision that could have united the Republican Party during Obama’s administration behind more than just a visceral dislike of the president himself. He wasn’t even able to meaningfully bolster the GOP’s chances of replacing Obama with a president from their own ranks, infamously telling one crowd during the 2012 presidential election that in his opinion “the American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney.”
Boehner’s biggest failure, however, was his inability to rein in the wilder elements in his party when their opposition to the president got out of control. Instead of collaborating with Obama on a series of centrist achievements much as Gingrich did with Clinton or Pelosi did with Bush, Boehner sat helplessly by while his party’s obstructionist ranks forced him to preside over two of the least productive congresses in American history. When he leaves office next month, he will have no significant legislative accomplishments of any kind associated with his tenure as Speaker.
While Boehner isn’t wrong in arguing that it was the “false prophets” of his party’s far right that reduced him to such a sorry state, this isn’t a defense so much as it is an acknowledgment of his shortcomings as a leader. Legislative leadership has never been easy, but the great House Speakers – men like Henry Clay, Thomas Reed, and Joe Cannon – are lauded for their ability to forge compromises even among the most disparate political factions (in Clay’s case this skill was so invaluable that his death is widely considered to have been a precipitating event in bringing about the Civil War). We’ll never know if another Republican might have done a better job as Speaker than Boehner – or, indeed, if anyone could have risen to the challenge – but it is undeniable that Boehner failed.