Although I have never formally met outgoing House Speaker John Boehner—which is interesting in itself given that we travel in close circles—I feel like I know him well. In fact, I have seen him many an early morning walking around Washington, D.C. As I am leaving Results gym on Capitol Hill at 6 a.m. after working out, I usually see the speaker walking with his security detail in the early morning darkness. Often it is the light of the tell-tale cigarette ember that harkens our parallel rituals.
For the past several years, this has been our usual routine. Literally passing like ships in the night, the smoke stack a solemn acknowledgment of an unspoken voyage, mutually undertaken at the break of dawn. I have often wondered whether the habit of smoking was how the speaker dealt with the stress of it all—perhaps how he balanced in anticipation of a long day of fighting, both within and outside his party—to craft a framework for Republican leadership amidst a fractured Congress and a divided nation.
In many ways, the job of the speaker of the House is much like that of a craftsman. He has to take the various planks—the needs of diverse constituencies under the majority party banner—and cut and shape them to fit a workable platform for governing. This has traditionally been a stable profession in Washington. Tip O’Neill, the legendary Democrat, served as speaker of the House for 11 years, until he finally retired in 1987 after 34 years in Congress.
But not so today. Many of the new members have come to the House with a mandate from the district to burn the barn down, not to fix it. I can understand where such cynicism comes from. It comes from an American voting public that is fed up with the “go along to get along” nature of politics in Washington. They feel as if their demands of government—the very reason they elect representatives—gets watered down and drown out amidst the horse-trading, backdoor deal-making and backslapping that has come to characterize what many see as an entrenched Washington elite. They feel the only way they can be heard is to shake things up, to disrupt business as usual, even at the cost of doing any business at all.
Boehner was once such a member. He came to the forefront as the leader of the opposition to Obamacare—refusing to even entertain the president when he came to Capitol Hill to try and sell the deal to Congress. He embraced the role of the obstructionist as the mantle of the minority, which was to counter the bully pulpit with a loud shout from the gallery. He rose to power on that basis and was seen by many as the unifying voice of the outnumbered who could only make their voices heard by standing in the path of what was perceived at the time as the Democratic machine set to steamroll through Washington.
But this model of leadership would come back to plague Boehner and the Republican establishment when they assumed the majority in 2011. In what has become a textbook case of the tail wagging the dog, newly elected members from the Tea Party wing came in and immediately started shaking things up. They forced the Congress to shut down the government rather than negotiate in good faith with the president and Democrats in Congress. This move was largely seen as damaging to the Republican Party, and rather than enable the Tea Party to push through its agenda, it has driven the country into a political impasse that continues today.
By the beginning of Obama’s second term, theatrical obstructionism had officially replaced constructive engagement as the congressional mantra. It’s one thing to stand in opposition as the minority party, but as the years passed, Boehner found himself at the helm of a deeply fractured majority. He was forced to expend considerably more effort corralling his own members than actually doing the business of government. This frustrated an already frustrated electorate to the point of near rebellion, as evidenced by the rise of the outsider in this year’s presidential contest. But the fact remains that doing any deal with the president—even a deal widely seen as a win for the majority—would be seen in the eyes of many as a win for the president. In a purely partisan reality, any win for the president was seen as a loss for the Congress rather than a win for the American people. Thus, in a sense, doing nothing became the de facto governing framework over which Boehner, through no fault of his own, found himself presiding.
For a person like Boehner, this state of affairs had to be both endlessly boring and infinitely frustrating. He must have felt truly damned, not to the fiery damnation of those condemned to hell, but the more agonizing damnation of eternal purgatory. To remain idle, taken to pacing the streets of the nation’s capital at the break of dawn, stuck, with nothing underfoot and nothing around but an impalpable greyness, intermittently punctuated by a single burning ember.
In a parting shot at the “false prophets” in Congress, the outgoing speaker chided the Washington rabble to “do the right things for the right reasons.” After all, he said, “It’s easy to try and do the things you can’t do.” But governing effectively is really about “hav[ing] the courage to do the things you can do.”