House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who’s unlikely to face a credible opponent when he seeks another term early next year, will soon lead a massive majority. The current House GOP caucus is pretty significant, but thanks to some modest gains in this year’s midterms, Boehner will soon sit atop a party with 247 House seats, the most for Republicans since the Great Depression.
But the New York Times noted the other day that there’s uncertainty lurking behind the numbers.
[W]hat he is able to do with that power will determine whether he is remembered as something more than the House leader during a stretch of frustrating gridlock and deep partisanship.“He’s never wanted to just be Speaker,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and a close ally. “He’s wanted to be a historically significant Speaker.”
The quote surprised me a bit. Several years ago, before the Ohio Republican was elevated to his current post, a friend of mine who works on Capitol Hill told me, “John Boehner cares about three things: cutting taxes, playing golf, and smoking cigarettes – and not necessarily in that order.”
Boehner, the argument went, didn’t have grand ambitions about becoming a historically significant figure. He welcomed promotions and leadership posts, but it was widely assumed that he saw the stature and prestige as their own rewards. In this vision of Boehner, we see a guy who didn’t intend to leave an imposing legacy – there would be no buildings named after him following his tenure.
But Tom Cole, one of Boehner’s closest allies, suggests this perception is all wrong. This Speaker actually does care about his place in history and he wants to be seen as a success.
Which in some ways makes the last four years something of a tragedy.
If Boehner set out to be a historically significant Speaker, he succeeded in the worst possible way: Congress, at least since the Civil War, has never been quite this dysfunctional. Congress has never failed quite so spectacularly to complete routine tasks. Congress never, in rapid succession, threatened to trash the full faith and credit of the United States, then repeatedly threatened to shut down the government, following through in one ridiculous case.
The most notable aspect of Boehner’s record is a complete inability to lead his own members and govern effectively. When this Speaker manages to pass spending measures that keep the government’s lights on, much of the country considers it a minor miracle, thanks entirely to the soft bigotry of low expectations.
After four years with the gavel, Boehner’s total of major legislative accomplishments remains stuck at … zero. Simon Maloy noted yesterday, “His record of leadership to date is defined almost entirely by its reflexive opposition to the president, and in the process he’s helped turn Congress into a dysfunctional morass in which elected representatives don’t actually know how to do their jobs.”
It didn’t have to be this way. There have been any number of opportunities for Boehner to tackle real legislative initiatives – up to and including immigration reform, which the Speaker promised to act on before he broke his word – and just as many chances to sit down with President Obama to strike meaningful compromises.
But Boehner, fearful of far-right revolts and members who ignore his attempts at leadership, has generally been loath to even try. If he genuinely “wanted to be a historically significant Speaker,” the disappointment must be crushing.