US House Speaker John Boehner returns to his office after a visit to the House floor for procedural votes for legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 27, 2015.
Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The legacy Speaker Boehner leaves behind

One my favorite moments of House Speaker John Boehner’s tenure came in July 2013, when the Ohio Republican sat down with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The host asked the GOP leader a question on the minds of many.
SCHIEFFER: Any way you cut it, and whoever`s fault it is, you have presided over what it perhaps the least-productive and certainly one of the least popular congresses in history. How do you feel about that?
BOEHNER: Well, Bob, we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.
As we talked about at the time, it was an unintentionally amusing exchange. Boehner was effectively trying to rebrand failure – instead of finding solutions to ongoing challenges, the Speaker argued Congress should be focusing on undoing solutions to previous challenges.
But the argument suffered from one serious flaw: Congress was historically inept, but it wasn’t repealing any laws, either. In effect, Boehner was arguing, “Sure, by your standard, I look like a failure, but I prefer my own standard, by which I’m still a failure.”
As the Speaker leaves the stage, it’s difficult, even for the most sycophantic of Republican partisans, to boast about the Boehner Era. It was on his watch that Congress ceased to function as an effective legislative body, saw its popularity plummet to unprecedented depths, and routinely struggled to complete even the most basic tasks.
It’s just below the surface, though, where the more interesting conversation takes place.
As we discussed in February, there are basically three schools of thought when it comes to Boehner. The first is that he’s a terrible failure who’s been unable to lead or govern. The second is that he’s a terrible failure, but it’s not really his fault because the radicalization of Republican politics has made it impossible for anyone to be an effective Speaker. He wasn’t up for the job, but it’s an inherently impossible task.
And the third is that Boehner made the best of a terrible situation – thanks to the Ohio congressman, Republicans have generally avoided doing real, lasting harm to the United States. Were it not for Boehner’s steady hand, the scale of GOP-imposed catastrophes would have been far worse.
Regular readers will recall that I’ve never found this third argument persuasive, in part because Boehner wasn’t able to prevent a government shutdown and a damaging debt-ceiling crisis, and in part because we should set the bar higher for success. Praising this Speaker for preventing fiascoes is like giving folks the Parents of the Year award because their kids have not yet burned down their home.
And that leaves us with the other two options: (1) he failed and it’s mostly his fault, or (2) he failed and it’s mostly his members’ fault.
That’s admittedly a much tougher call, and I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years. On the one hand, part of Boehner’s job has been to navigate unfriendly waters. A Speaker has to prioritize, establish a clear vision, know when there’s trouble ahead, and carefully guide his or her party away from it. Boehner never could. At times, he didn’t even seem to try.
On the other hand, too many of his members really are barking mad, forcing him to pursue ridiculous gambits that his instincts told him were a terrible idea.
The sad reality is, however, that either explanation paints an ugly picture of a hopeless leader. Boehner, regardless of who’s fault it is, is arguably the weakest Speaker in modern American history and his painfully short list of accomplishments is testament to an era of missed opportunities.