John Boehner seemed almost as joyous yesterday as the pope’s pilgrims. With retirement just a month away, the self-liberating House Speaker has shed his leash and bared his teeth. His target: the Republican bomb-throwers who are wreaking havoc with sane governance.
On CBS News, Boehner said: “The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading, you know, noise about how much can get done …. And so we got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know — they know! — are never going to happen.”
OK, his truth-telling isn’t entirely new; he recently had referred to the GOP hardliners as “knuckleheads.” But now we know why Boehner was tearful during the Pope’s congressional address. The pontiff urged lawmakers to compromise “for the common good” — and Boehner knew darn well that the zealots in his caucus are cognitively incapable of compromise, that they’re far more committed to making frenzied noise in pursuit of stuff that will never happen. And making his life miserable, to boot. So he probably said to himself, “You know what? I don’t need this crap anymore.”
I’m not trying to canonize Boehner. He willingly rode the tea-party wave to power back in 2010, figuring that the zealous newbies — whom he now calls “false prophets” — would respect the House and the concept of governance. He figured wrong. In the end, they mounted his head as a wall trophy.
And what this means, of course, is that the Republican civil war will only get bloodier. Having knocked off Boehner, the zealots — who hilariously call themselves the Freedom Caucus — will now feel even more emboldened to throw sand into the governmental gears. And apparently that’s what grassroots Republicans want anyway, as evidenced by their current love affair with Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, none of whom have ever served a day in public service.
Actually, this Republican civil war is not really about ideology. Boehner, by many measures, is just as conservative as the people who are driving him out. No, this is a war over tactics. It pits the realists against the delusionists.
Put simply, the realists (like Boehner) operate in the pragmatic real world — which currently features a Democratic president, and insufficient Senate Republican votes to override that president. Therefore, realists recognize that politics is the art of the possible. Which is what’s supposd to happen when you have divided government and separation of powers — two concepts that the delusionists apparently never learned in school. Instead, the delusionists believe that they can (and should) get their way regardless of whether they actually have the votes to, say, shut down the government over Planned Parenthood or summarily repeal Obamacare.
In the words of Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the delusionists have ushered in a “new tribal world of radical politics.” He rightly predicts that they’ll pressure their new House Republicans leaders “away from realism and pragmatic compromise, abetted by the continuing drumbeat from right-wing media figures and their acolytes.” And Patrick Ruffini, a longtime Republican strategist, rebuked the delusionists the other day in a Facebook post: “Without a two-thirds majority or control of the White House, Republicans did NOT earn the right to see their ideas passed.”
But, naturally, the delusionists don’t see things that way. As Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, a prominent zealot group, said the other day as he danced on Boehner’s political grave, “the decentralizing influence of digital communication” — grassroots social media — will ensure that the new leaders eschew compromise with Obama. All told: “We have a chance to take back America.”
Clearly, the “Freedom” Caucus didn’t get the pope’s memo that the political players should “guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil.” Boehner’s sin, at least according to the delusionists, was that he tried to broker stuff in the gray zone between good and evil. The delusionists could afford to feel that way, of course, because most of them hail from safe (often gerrymandered) red districts where compromise with Obama is anathema. Boehner couldn’t control these people — Republican strategist John Weaver, sympathizing with Boehner, likened the job to “herding cats on crack” — and it won’t be any different after regime change.
And that’s unfortunate. As ex-Bush adviser Mark McKinnon lamented three years ago, when the delusionists were trying to drive America (and Boehner) over the fiscal cliff, “All sanity seems to have left the ranks …. That’s not governing. That’s just lobbing hand grenades.” His plaintive plea: “We become a stronger Republican Party by acting like reasonable human beings who acknowledge reality.”