John Boehner, Pope Francis, and the hope for a functional GOP

     Former House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

    Former House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

    In order to understand the position in which Boehner found himself just prior to his announcement that he would resign from Congress at the end of October, one must first understand how recent events affected Boehner’s Republican party. 

    In the face of losses on the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, conservative Republicans had pinned their latest hopes for victory on the fight against abortion.

    They believed that an edited video purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue from abortions would give them the momentum to discontinue the organization’s federal funding. When it became clear that wouldn’t happen, they blamed Boehner, and began to publicly call for a government shutdown. Boehner, who oversaw the last government shutdown in 2013, wasn’t anxious to do so again.

    Boehner, you see, is a pragmatist; a man who understands that politics, in its purist form, is about negotiation, give and take, and quid pro quo. He knows that in order to lead a legislative body effectively, one must have the ability to reward one’s allies and punish one’s enemies, even if those enemies are within one’s own party.

    However, the politics of today’s extreme right makes punishment hard to dole out, because for too many new House conservatives, obstruction is its own reward. That’s why traditional punishments such as lost leadership positions, or reduced office budgets are ineffective, and that’s why the Republican caucus can’t be controlled.

    For Boehner, a man who has watched the GOP devolve into factions that are often at war with another, the specter of standing at the helm of yet another government shutdown was apparently too much. And ironically, the words of Pope Francis seemed to hammer that message home during the pontiff’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

    The Pope, who spoke eloquently in Philadelphia about the plight of immigrants and the imprisoned, spoke just as passionately to Congress about the type of ideological gridlock that Boehner, a devout Catholic, has overseen.

    “[T]here is another temptation which we must especially guard against,” Pope Francis said, “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”

    I don’t pretend to know what went through Boehner’s mind as he heard the Pope’s words. I do, however, know that the Republican-controlled Congress has far too often divided the world into an overly simplistic view. In doing so, they have caused polarization both outside their party, and within. The result? Missed opportunities to make real and substantive change.

    That’s a shame, because the two party system should naturally create compromise. Under Boehner, it has created chaos. 

    Now that Boehner has decided to resign, the next government shutdown can be avoided. But the long-term problem of polarization continues, as does the angry, unyielding posture of a Republican party that would rather disable the government than function within it.

    Sadly, the return to normalcy seems far off. Donald Trump leads in the quest for the Republican presidential nomination based on his ability to crudely express conservative anger. Steve Scalise, whose attendance at a white supremacist group’s event a dozen years ago stirred controversy, is among those vying to replace Boehner. And the Tea Party wing continues to demand protest over governance.

    Even as a lifelong Democrat, I believe that the GOP must return to functioning as a viable party. America needs them to be a check to the Democrats’ balance.

    I think John Boehner knows that, too, and he’s hoping, along many other Americans, that his resignation will bring sanity back to our politics. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.