John Boehner and the Madness of the Republican Party
The former Speaker’s Politico essay is a humbling reminder of just how far his party has fallen.
When I opened up Politico for my daily news briefing, I almost didn’t read the first story I saw listed, “Panic Rooms, Birth Certificates and the Birth of GOP Paranoia. Then I saw that it was written by none other than John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, and I thought: “what the hell? It might be interesting.”
It is, and it isn’t. While it’s a bit clunky in terms of its prose, it is very much of a piece with Boehner’s bluntly honest approach to politics, which has been revealed in, among other places, Barack Obama’s recent memoir. In his essay for Politico, which is adapted from his forthcoming book, Boehner recounts his struggles to wrangle his unruly caucus into some sort of order in order to pass conservative legislative priorities, all while enduring the opprobrium of the right-wing news machine, most notably Sean Hannity of Fox News.
What’s more, he had to witness the descent of his party into the fever swamps of conspiracy theories (Obama is a secret Muslim!) and endless obstruction (never compromise!) Though the piece is brief, Boehner manages to lob a few bombs at some of whackier members of the GOP, including Michelle Bachman (who once threatened him with Fox News if he didn’t put her on her preferred committee). It’s an amusing piece, to be sure, but it’s also terrifying, showing us just how much the GOP has lots its collective mind.
None of this is exactly new, particularly to those of us who eat, drink, and breathe politics of the Washington, DC variety. However, it’s pretty astounding to see all of this come from a former leader of the GOP, who seems to have zero fucks left to give and quite a few axes to grind. One can hardly blame him, considering it was the avowed purpose of many in the Freedom Caucus to bring about an end to his speakership, and they succeeded. His successor, Paul Ryan, didn’t fare much better, and it’s hard to imagine that any future Republican Speaker (looking at you, Kevin McCarthy) will succeed where Boehner and Ryan failed. That genie is out of the bottle, and there is no putting it back.
Boehner’s brief essay forces us to confront a fundamental truth about today’s Republican Party, which is this: they are completely and utterly mad. What was once a party committed to principles of limited government, individual liberty, and individual responsibility, has instead become one devoted to the Big Lie (that some nefarious cabal stole the election from Donald Trump), that their power is dependent upon gerrymandering and suppressing the votes of those who don’t support their policies, and that science (including climate science and COVID research) is a myth that they can disregard at will. More than anything else, though, they seem to believe that government, in any form, is an evil and that private enterprise is the panacea to solve all of America’s ills.
This, too, isn’t surprising. As much as the GOP has wandered off of the path of sane governance, they have also taken Ronald Reagan’s infamous maxim “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” to its logical conclusion. There is no problem which we now confront, whether it’s systemic racism, the increasingly-obvious climate crisis, COVID-19 and its effects, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, or anything else that they are willing to fix if it involves in any way growing the size of the welfare state or taxing the corporations that pour money into their coffers. If it doesn’t involve slashing taxes for the wealthy, funding the military, or flogging one of its many culture-war hobby horses, today’s Republicans, including those in the supposedly more sane Senate, aren’t interested. And, as Boehner alludes to in the last paragraph of his essay, even the Senate has its share of lunatics, including Ted Cruz.
However, as I read this essay from Boehner, I couldn’t help but think: well, what did you think would happen? He had a front-row seat to the madness unfolding all around him: to take just one example, he schmoozed with the likes of Roger Ailes, who he had to know was always a ne’er-do-well even before he went completely off the deep end. It’s rather hilarious (and, frankly, infuriating), to see Boehner make the claim that something changed about Ailes after 2008. Like many other Republicans of his generation, he thought he could goad the base and leverage its outrage to attain success only to find out — big surprise! — that such forces cannot be contained.
I have a feeling that we’re about to be inundated by many more books like Boehner’s, Republicans desperate to burnish their own reputations and save themselves from being tarred with the same brush as Trump and his acolytes. While I am of the belief that these voices of reason should be welcomed into the fold, I also can’t help but wish that people like Boehner would at least be a little more honest with us and themselves about their own complicity in today’s state of affairs. They had to know, because the rest of us did, where this was all going to end, and the fact that people like Boehner continue to insist on their own innocence suggests that they are either willfully ignorant or deeply disingenuous. Neither of these possibilities is particularly encouraging.
At this point, I’m honestly not sure what to do with the GOP, which seems to have fully embraced nihilism. When even avowed conservatives like Boehner find themselves unwelcome in the House of Representatives, it suggests that there is literally no place for a measured approach to conservative legislative priorities. And, as Tim Alberta (also of Politico) observed some time ago in his book American Carnage, when you have a powerful contingent of one of a country’s two major parties devote itself to the destruction of its own government from within, the result is the disaster that we’re all currently living in.
One shudders to think what damage they could do if they win in 2022. Let’s just hope we don’t find out.