That’s just what the conservative movement needs right now. Less adult supervision.
But with the fall last week of House Speaker John Boehner – more accurately, with his decision to resign because life is too short for Ted Cruz – that is precisely what conservatives now have. It is a development with sobering implications far beyond the political right.
Not that you’d have known this from the bacchanal of celebration the news set off among conservatives. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was swamped by a roar of approbation when he announced the resignation at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. Sen. Cruz, who has long been Boehner’s chief tormentor, seemed ready to lead a conga line as he joked about it before the same gathering.
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And here, it might be instructive to remind ourselves of the nature of Boehner’s supposed apostasy. He was, after all, aligned with his persecutors on pretty much every issue of substance. The Affordable Care Act? Guns? The debt ceiling? There was not a scintilla of daylight between him and them.
But what we’ve learned since the tea party came to town is that being right – as in right wing – is no longer enough. Now you must be so unyielding in your rightness that you’d rather damage the country than seek common ground with the other side. To do so is to risk being tarred, as Boehner was, as spineless and weak.
In the end, then, his sin was that he was a pragmatist; he understood, as Ronald Reagan did, as Bill Clinton did, as every successful leader in a democratic system must, that politics is the art of compromise. His sin is that he was a grown-up in a Congress of tea party children who made a calculated decision to render that body inert and ungovernable rather than yield, even in the face of inevitable discredit and defeat.
One is reminded of how toddlers will sometimes throw temper tantrums and threaten to hold their breath until they get their way. With apologies to kids – who, after all, have the excuse of being kids – there are echoes of that kind of behavior in this last five years of governance by threat, high-stakes brinksmanship and fiscal hostage-taking: In fact, a new such fight was brewing even as Boehner called it quits. Hardline conservatives want to – all together now – shut down the government unless it defunds Planned Parenthood.
Republican Rep. Peter King probably put it best when he said of Boehner’s resignation: “I think it signals that crazies have taken over the party.”
Ya think? Heck, some of us – including some Republicans – have been saying that for years. Moreover, the unruliness of the tea party seems part and parcel of a more general lawlessness that has afflicted the once-upon-a-time party of law and order. Consider how GOP presidential candidates rushed to lionize Kentucky bureaucrat Kim Davis, who, in declining to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, did only what George Wallace and Orval Faubus did once upon a time: refused to abide by a Supreme Court ruling. Unable to vindicate their ideals within the rules, conservatives seem increasingly unwilling to be constrained by rules or, indeed, by much of anything.
These are the forces that felled Boehner, and you might describe it as a case of just deserts given that the speaker once supported, and saw political benefit from, the unleashing of those selfsame forces. But what happened here is not good for any of us. Governance in a democracy requires give and take between at least two political parties. More and more, we seem to find ourselves one party short, the GOP choosing instead to function as a cult or belief system.
Boehner’s departure does not help. It only removes one more adult from the equation in a party that doesn’t have any to spare.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.