Boehner’s Speaker Sacrifice

WSJ, Editorial Board 

It’s time for the GOP’s rebel caucus to run its own candidate.

BN-KM525_1speak_M_20150925174703John Boehner’s resignation as House Speaker, and from his seat in Congress, is an act of personal sacrifice and an education in the limits of political power when government is divided. The question now is whether Republicans will reboot with new leadership, or indulge in more disunity and dysfunction.

Mr. Boehner has spent nearly five years trapped between an implacable President Obama and an uncompromising faction within his own party. Conservatives blamed him for not delivering victories no Speaker could. The Ohio Republican said at a press conference Friday—he looked like he’d just been released from prison—that he’d concluded that “prolonged leadership turmoil” would damage the House of Representatives and the Republican Party.

Perhaps 30 or more backbenchers were threatening to depose Mr. Boehner in a parliamentary maneuver, and he might have needed Democratic votes to survive. The Speaker has resisted demands to try to defund Planned Parenthood in a continuing resolution next week, though he is among Congress’s most pro-life Members. As with so many other recent GOP psychodramas, the debate is over tactics.

Mr. Boehner knows such a bill lacks the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate and that Mr. Obama wouldn’t sign it anyway. So he has tried to guide his conference away from brinksmanship that could shut down the government because the tactic is pointless and would benefit Mr. Obama and Democrats.

Mr. Boehner could have personally endured more talk-radio insults about surrender. But better, and more honorable, to depart if leaving might break the GOP fever ahead of a 2016 election that could set up Republicans for a governing majority in 2017.

Mr. Boehner made his share of mistakes as Speaker, and the biggest was trusting Mr. Obama to bargain in good faith. He entered solo negotiations with the White House, told his conference to wait and see, and behind closed doors even cut preliminary deals on modest tax and entitlement reform—not once but twice. Mr. Obama suddenly raised his demands each time and then ambushed Mr. Boehner publicly. These double-crosses damaged his credibility among conservatives.

The Speaker might have improved relations with better internal communication, and too often his strategy has been improvisational. Then again, Mr. Boehner had to govern amid the rise of Mr. Obama’s conservative doppelgangers. Like the President, they equate compromise with selling out and prefer stunts to the less glamorous work of making slow, incremental progress, which is how America usually works amid divided government.

Yet Mr. Boehner’s Speakership also accomplished more than his conservative critics give him credit for. One achievement that deserves more attention is spending restraint. In the liberal heyday of 2009, outlays soared to 24.4% of GDP and stayed near that level until Republicans took back the House.

But in the fiscal 2012 budget, their first as a majority, spending fell in real terms, and then again the next year. By fiscal 2014 federal spending had fallen to 20.3% of the economy. This fulfilled a GOP promise from the 2010 campaign and would never have happened if Nancy Pelosi ran the House.

The trade-promotion bill that Mr. Boehner helped pilot this year will also help the U.S. economy in the years ahead, especially if a Republican becomes President in 2017. And the permanent fix to the Medicare physician-payment formula is the first pure entitlement reform since the 1990s. Mr. Boehner didn’t repeal ObamaCare, but that was never practical as long as its namesake is President.

The race is now on for a new Speaker, and California Republican Kevin McCarthy is an early favorite. The current Majority Leader is a hail-fellow-well-met operator who is smart and well liked across the conference. He’s not a policy man. Paul Ryan could run and win, but why would he want to steer the mob when he can do more good running Ways and Means?

This is the moment for the rebellion caucus to put up or stand down. The Members should organize behind a candidate of their own, put their tactics to a vote among their colleagues, and abide by the result. The worst outcome would be if they continue to use a threat to depose the next Speaker as a way to dictate strategy from the caboose.

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Perhaps without Mr. Boehner as flak catcher, Republicans will learn the virtue of political patience. The model is Ms. Pelosi in 2007, when she was under intense pressure from the left to defund the Iraq war and stop the surge. Instead of shutting down the government in protest, she bided her time with the priority of electing a Democratic President in 2008. Then she fulfilled 40 years of progressive dreams.

Republicans now have a similar opportunity, assuming they don’t set up Mr. Obama to hand off the Presidency to Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Many voters really are as angry as the backbenchers claim—a Fox News poll this week showed that three of five Republicans felt “betrayed” by the party. But promoting designed-to-fail gimmicks like defunding Planned Parenthood and then blaming “the establishment” for the inevitable failure is cynical. It will also play into the hands of a Democratic nominee who will say the country needs a check on a reckless GOP Congress.

If Mr. Boehner is a casualty of a polarized Washington, how and when politicians relinquish power is sometimes a better measure of their character than how they use it. Mr. Boehner never regarded the Speakership as a personal sinecure, and the critics who demanded his head could learn from his example.

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