Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Time To Rehabilitate John Boehner? Not So Fast


Tim Alberta did an exhaustive piece on post-congressional Boehner for Politico over the weekend, based on 3 interviews he did with him over the summer. Boehner, he wrote, has fucked up his golf game horrible since he resigned from the Speakership and Congress. He just can't concentrate anymore. But he hasn't lost his mind. 'Fuck Jordan. Fuck Chaffetz," he told Alberta. "They’re both assholes."
To outsiders, Boehner might just be the happiest man alive, a liberated retiree who spends his days swirling merlot and cackling at Speaker Paul Ryan’s misfortune. The truth is more complicated. At 67, Boehner is liberated-- to say what he spent many years trying not to say; to smoke his two packs a day without undue stress; to chuckle at the latest crisis in Washington and whisper to himself those three magic words: “Not my problem.” And yet he is struggling-- with the lingering perception that he was run out of Congress; with his alarm about the country’s future; and with the question of what he’s supposed to do next. After leaving office, Boehner says a longtime family friend approached him. “You’ve always had a purpose-- your business, your family, politics,” the friend said. “What’s your purpose now?” Boehner says the question gnaws at him every day.

...[T]he story of Boehner’s 25 years in Washington is also the story of the Republican Party, the Congress and American politics in the post-Ronald Reagan era: an account of corruption and crusading, enormous promises and underwhelming results, growing ideological polarization and declining faith in government. The same centrifugal forces that made Boehner’s job impossible have bedeviled his successor, Ryan, and kept the GOP majorities in Congress from passing any landmark legislation in 2017. Now, as the revolutionary fervor that swept Boehner into the speakership degenerates into a fratricidal conflict centered around Trump, the former speaker’s frontline view of the Republican civil war is essential to understanding what went wrong.

...To Boehner and his allies, [Jim] Jordan was the antagonist in the story of his speakership-- an embodiment of the brinkmanship and betrayal that roiled the House Republican majority and made Boehner’s life miserable. Although he would tell me in later conversations that he holds no grudges against anyone, today Boehner unloads on his fellow Ohioan. “Jordan was a terrorist as a legislator going back to his days in the Ohio House and Senate,” Boehner says. “A terrorist. A legislative terrorist.”

If he sounds exasperated, it’s because this is the central irony of his career: A quarter-century before the conservative insurgency stormed Washington and derailed his speakership, John Boehner was the conservative insurgency.

...The year 1994 didn’t just usher in new leadership to the House and the GOP; it marked a profound shift in Washington’s partisan relations. Gingrich, a master messenger with a zero-sum approach to ideological warfare, perfected the art of launching poll-tested attacks on Democrats as “radicals” who threatened liberty. With a penchant for turning personal disagreement into political Armageddon, Gingrich weaponized the speakership as never before.

“The beginning of the scorched-earth policy really began with Gingrich winning in the mid-’90s, the Gingrich revolution, and the enormous pressure put on moderate Republicans to walk away from anything remotely approaching a compromise,” says former Vice President Joe Biden, who was then a senator from Delaware.

Another change, one that would later inform some of the opposition to Boehner’s speakership, was the consolidation of power at the expense of committee chairmen and rank-and-file members. “Gingrich basically created a process where the speaker was the epicenter of the House,” says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

As the fourth-ranking House Republican-- behind Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay-- Boehner could see the toll these institutional transformations took on GOP members, who felt disempowered by Gingrich’s imperial style. After Clinton won reelection in 1996, Republicans grew restless. The GOP had suffered terribly from Gingrich’s handling of a lengthy government shutdown from December 1995 to January 1996-- a lesson that informed Boehner’s aversion to such tactics years later-- as well as his constant public feuding and a barrage of ethics charges against him. In January 1997, Gingrich became the first speaker ever reprimanded for an ethics violation.

“When I saw that Boehner was becoming speaker, I thought that was a positive thing,” Biden tells me. “I thought there could be actually some work together, some collaboration together, and we could actually get some things done. But I thought, most of all, he was going to treat the president with more respect than some of his colleagues had.”

The class of 2010 wasn’t interested in collaboration. These rowdy freshmen lawmakers saw Boehner’s “Hell no” speech as a blueprint for their slash-and-burn strategy. When they realized after arriving in D.C. that he would not lead accordingly, dozens of them gravitated toward someone who would: Jordan, the newly installed chairman of the Republican Study Committee. When I ask about those factions forming in 2011, Jordan cites the “Hell no” speech and shrugs. “That’s the John Boehner we were hoping for.”

The Republicans Party's incipient civil war moved quickly from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill. The fundamentally irreconcilable approaches of Boehner and Jordan, and the members who followed them, produced an increasingly volatile series of intraparty collisions during the new GOP majority’s first term in 2011 and 2012.

Some of this owed to Boehner’s not taking the campaign rhetoric of his new colleagues at face value. “These were people who ran against Washington and planned on voting that way,” explains Tim Huelskamp, who was elected in the 2010 wave and then lost his Kansas district’s Republican primary in 2016. Boehner rejects the notion that he was ill-prepared to deal with these rookie legislators, but his allies concede there was a blind spot. “He thought of himself as someone who was of the Tea Party mentality before the Tea Party was a thing … so I think there were some assumptions made that he got these people, and that they would see he was one of them,” says Anne Bradbury, Boehner’s former floor director. “But that really never came together.”

Some of the freshmen took one look at Boehner-- the golf-tanned back-slapper who wore handsome, tailored suits and rented his D.C. apartment from a registered lobbyist-- and saw the embodiment of everything they were sent to destroy. “They never gave him a fair shake,” says Kevin McCarthy, the California congressman who was then Boehner’s majority whip.

...The fiscal cliff further diminished Boehner’s standing on the right. When the new Congress convened in January 2013, some two dozen House conservatives plotted to overthrow him. Any speaker needs a majority of votes cast on the House floor on the first day of a new Congress; Huelskamp and others concluded that if 17 Republicans voted against Boehner, that would force a second ballot-- and he would step aside out of shame. Huelskamp says the coup participants “signed their names in blood” the night before the vote-- not literally-- and he was stunned the next day to see just 12 of them follow through. Boehner survived, but was embarrassed by the revolt. It was the first attempt on his speakership, though not the last.

...The Freedom Caucus has begun to squeeze Ryan, much as it did to Boehner-- warning him that without changes his tenure could be similarly endangered. And Ryan, as Boehner did, is telling friends that he’s losing patience with the job. When I tell Jordan about Boehner’s description of him-- “a legislative terrorist”-- and ask about whether he’s holding the speakership hostage, he flashes surprise and eventually irritation. “Oh, my goodness. I feel sorry for the guy if he’s that bitter about a guy coming here and doing what he told the voters he was gonna do. Wow. I feel bad for him,” Jordan says. “But in the end, we were not doing what the voters elected us to do and what we told them we were going to do. We just weren’t. And I would argue the same thing is happening now.”

Jordan’s veiled threat only partially explains the frustration written all over Ryan’s face when we meet: Earlier that day, after Ryan scoffed at a Democratic proposal to pass a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, Trump met with Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and gave them exactly what they wanted. “Um, yeah, that one-- yeah, that’s kind of par for the course these days,” Ryan tells me, his tie loosened and a sense of resignation in his voice. “This is a presidency that offers some surprises.” Weeks later, when I ask Boehner about Trump’s deal with the Democrats, he erupts into a cough-laugh. “My guess is that he thought he was doing everybody a favor. He had no idea he was cutting off McConnell and Ryan’s legs.”

Trump himself is less a source of apprehension for top Republicans than what he represents: a fracturing of the party and a corollary decline in its ability to govern. “We basically run a coalition government without the efficiency of a parliamentary system,” Ryan complains.

When I ask Boehner whether the Republican Party can survive this, he cuts me off. “There is no Rep...” He stops himself. “You were about to say, ‘There is no Republican Party,” I tell him. He shrugs. “There is. But what does it even mean? Donald Trump’s not a Republican. He’s not a Democrat. He’s a populist. He doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body.” So who, I ask, is the leader of the party? “There is nobody,” he says.

I ask Boehner what he thinks historians will make of his speakership. “They’ll be talking about the end of the two-party system,” he replies.

In our months of conversations, Trump was the lone subject about which Boehner seemed reluctant to speak freely... [W]hen I raised the matter of this summer’s march in Charlottesville, and Trump’s equivocations. “I do not believe that he is a racist. I do not believe that he is a white supremacist,” Boehner tells me. “He has clearly done some things to lead people who never liked him to say those things about him.” So, I ask, how can Trump fix that? Boehner arches an eyebrow. “Is it fixable?”

Boehner worries about the deepening fissures in American society. But he sees Trump as more of a symptom than the cause of what is a longer arc of social and ideological alienation, fueled by talk radio and Fox News on the right and MSNBC and social media on the left. “People thought in ’09, ’10, ’11, that the country couldn’t be divided more. And you go back to Obama’s campaign in 2008, you know, he was talking about the divide and healing the country and all of that. And some would argue on the right that he did more to divide the country than to unite it. I kind of reject that notion.” Why is that? “Because it wasn’t him!” Boehner replies. “It was modern-day media, and social media, that kept pushing people further right and further left. People started to figure out … they could choose where to get their news. And so what do people do? They choose places they agree with, reinforcing the divide.”

He continues: “I always liked Rush [Limbaugh]. When I went to Palm Beach I would always meet with Rush and we’d go play golf. But you know, who was that right-wing guy, [Mark] Levin? He went really crazy right and got a big audience, and he dragged [Sean] Hannity to the dark side. He dragged Rush to the dark side. And these guys-- I used to talk to them all the time. And suddenly they’re beating the living shit out of me.” Boehner, seated in his favorite recliner, lights another cigarette. “I had a conversation with Hannity, probably about the beginning of 2015. I called him and said, ‘Listen, you’re nuts.’ We had this really blunt conversation. Things were better for a few months, and then it got back to being the same-old, same-old. Because I wasn’t going to be a right-wing idiot.”

Boehner believes Americans are ill-informed because of their retreat into media echo chambers, one of two incurable causes of the country’s polarization. Another is inextricably related: the unwillingness of lawmakers to collaborate across the aisle, for fear of recriminations from the base. Boehner says the fact he and Obama golfed together only once-- and agreed that it was usually better for him to sneak into the White House-- speaks to how the two parties punish compromise. He doesn’t foresee this toxic political climate improving, ticking off potential fixes-- term limits, redistricting reform-- that he says won’t make a bit of difference. “It’s going to take an intervening event for Americans to realize that first, we are Americans,” he says. An intervening event? “Something cataclysmic,” he responds, gazing upward.

...Boehner’s 25 years in Washington saw the dissolution of a party, the vandalizing of a government and the splintering of a nation. That Boehner watched as the GOP transformed from the party of George H.W. Bush into the party of Donald Trump. That Boehner funded and helped recruit a class of majority-makers who ended up driving him from office and destabilizing the Congress he cares deeply about. The triumph of John Boehner is that he achieved reform and ascended to the speakership and often rose above the uncompromising dogma of both parties; the tragedy is that he came to Congress an insurgent only to be swallowed by the insurgency, and that he wasted key opportunities, as with the shutdown and immigration battles of 2013, to lead in a way that might have quelled it. “At times,” Sommers admits, “we fed the beast that ate us.”
I'm not weeping for Boehner. Meet Rich Iott, an actual Nazi he tried getting elected to Congress from Ohio in 2010. Watch Anderson Cooper interview him:

Boehner's favorite Nazi, who liked dressing up like an SS Officer on weekends used to pretend to be a U.S. military veteran. The GOP made him a Young Gun and Boehner put money into his campaign. The video above shows him defending "valiant" SS volunteers as defenders of "freedom" and "liberty," exactly the same twisted way some people-- basically Republicans-- claim Republicans are defenders of freedom and liberty. Freedom and liberty for the rich and powerful to exploit the vulnerable? Oh, yeah-- that's just what a normal person thinks of when they think about freedom or liberty! Marcy Kaptur saved Boehner further embarrassment by beating Iott 117,890 (59%) to 81,876 (41%).

John and Grover

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At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boner makes some valid points about echo chambers, punishing compromise (mostly on the R side) and such. But he's wrong if he thinks he did not have a vital role to play in this. History will show that, if indeed he believed in compromise, he was the one who could have undone gingrich but chose to exacerbate it.

In much the same way, only worse, obamanation (and his D numbers in 2009) COULD have undone everything from Reagan to cheney, but summarily refused, instead choosing to normalize all that and extend it much further.

There are roughly equal numbers of voters who are basically Nazis and who are anti-nazis (1/3 each). There is about 1/3 of the electorate who never participates because there is no point. Why cast a vote FOR a money party whore or a money party whore who is a Nazi?

The great tragedy of this time, that has been brewing since 1981 or so, is that neither "party" wants to forge a permanent majority (in boner's word, a coalition) by BEING truly left and DOING left things that UNDO everything done since 1980. Both "parties" choose to hew to the money's demands instead and battle over who can suppress more of 'their' third in order to win the next election. (the Ds suppressed a lot of THEIR third in 2016)

The Rs, of course, know they cannot appeal to very many of the dormant third since their goals are evil and their tactics are misanthropic. But the Ds could (or could have up until after the 2016 convention). But they refuse. I'll give you 3.7 seconds to suss out why that is.

At 4:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So when does Boner get ED (Editorial Dysfunction)?

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Nixon could rehab his rep to become a sought-after opinion, boner certainly qualifies. I saw the bushbaby gave a speech recently that got some air time too.

We'll see tom delay next. people have very short memories for white criminals, fools and assholes.


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