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Why Boehner's re-election bid matters

Rumors have circulated for months that Speaker John Boehner would retire next year. Now that he's announced otherwise, the implications are significant.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, (R, OH), files petitions for re-election at the Butler County Board of Elections, Hamilton, OH, December 9, 2013.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, (R, OH), files petitions for re-election at the Butler County Board of Elections, Hamilton, OH, December 9, 2013.

Before heading to D.C. today to continue the fight on behalf of families and workers hurting under the president's fundamentally flawed health care law, Speaker Boehner stopped by the Butler County Board of Elections to file petitions to seek re-election.

Yes, the way all Republican paragraphs are structured in 2013, condemnations of the Affordable Care Act must be incorporated into unrelated news items.
Awkward writing notwithstanding, Boehner's re-election campaign was hardly a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, the Huffington Post reported in September that the Speaker's former aides and a variety of high-level GOP operatives are "increasingly convinced" he will step down after the 2014 midterms. A former Republican leadership aide who is part of Boehner's circle told Ryan Grim and Jon Ward , "Everybody around him thinks this is his last term."
Another former senior Boehner aide said, "I'd be surprised if he did [stay]." Another party operative added, "The natural assumption is that he leaves. It's the overwhelming, working assumption as people are making strategy going into 2015 and 2016."
Barring an 11th hour change of heart, it now appears those assumptions are incorrect. So why should anyone outside Boehner's southwestern Ohio district care? Because the Speaker's decision to run rather retire has a significant impact on Congress' willingness (and ability) to govern over the next year. Yesterday's news carries broader implications that aren't often talked about.
Revisiting an item from September, my Grand Unified Theory of Boehner has long held that the Speaker's political instincts are fairly sound -- he's perfectly comfortable striking deals, reaching compromises, passing bills, and governing in a traditional way. None of this has happened since he became Speaker, of course, because he leads a radicalized caucus that has no such appetite for legislative success -- on anything.
Why does Boehner look so weak and inept as Speaker? This is why -- he's pushed around by unyielding extremists who have no use for his brand of "leadership." And so popular bills that Boehner might consider passing gather dust, while House Republicans shut down the government, threaten a sovereign debt crisis, and vote several dozen times to repeal a health care law that will not go away.
By all appearances, the Speaker has endured three years of this nonsense because, well, he wants to be Speaker.
Deciding against re-election would have changed the calculus -- as we discussed three months ago, with retirement comes freedom. He wouldn't have to be held hostage to his unhinged base; he could abandon the "Hastert Rule"; he could give up on the never-ending series of hostage crises; and he could start brining legislation to the floor for votes -- where popular bills could start passing.
Let's not forget, prominent lawmakers are often mindful of history, and want to be remembered for having used their time in power wisely. At this point, Boehner's list of accomplishments as Speaker is literally non-existent. That could change, though, if he were ready to walk away and decided to rack up some successes before he goes, without regard for how it might affect his electoral future.
But as of yesterday, the speculation no longer matters. Boehner will seek another term, which means he will almost certainly expect to stay on as Speaker, which means he will care about keeping his party happy, which means the odds of meaningful policymaking before the 2014 elections just deteriorated a little more.