John Boehner Exits and a New Fight for the GOP Begins

5 minute read

Correction appended October 2, 2015

On his office wall in Washington, Illinois Republican Representative Peter Roskam has framed a quote from a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to Charles Clay. “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches,” the Founding Father wrote in 1790. “It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.”

Roskam has been dwelling on the maxim a lot in recent days, as it has become evident–once again–that many of his most conservative colleagues reject it completely. The champions of impatience have been tearing at the seams of Congress and the Republican Party for years. Indeed, four of their kind–Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina–now dominate the Republican presidential race. The war cries are legion: Repeal Obamacare. Shut down the government. Dump the compromisers. Depose the Speaker. “We’ve become an instant-gratification culture that is now clashing with a system of government created by our founders that couldn’t even contemplate instant gratification,” Roskam observes.

The problem for the GOP rebels is that they currently lack the votes for the change they seek, with Democrats able to filibuster in the Senate and a President who can veto. They are perfectly able, however, to cause chaos for themselves. And so they have.

Highlights from the Career of House Speaker John Boehner in Pictures

John Boehner stands with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a news conference in 1997.Scott J. Ferrell—Getty Images
Boehner and George W. Bush during a bill-signing ceremony in Hamilton, Ohio, in 2002.Tim Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
Boehner introduces George W. Bush during a rally in West Chester, Ohio, in 2004. Stephen Jaffe—AFP/Getty Images
Boehner after being elected as House Republican leader on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 2, 2006.Alex Wong—Getty Images
Newly elected as Speaker of the House, Boehner holds a gavel during the opening session of the 112th Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 5, 2011.Tim Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
The desk of John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Boehner's desk as Speaker.Tim Davis for TIME
Boehner plays golf with President Obama at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in 2011. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks out of a meeting at the U.S. Capitol ahead of a potential government shutdown in April 2011 in Washington.
Boehner walks out of a meeting at the U.S. Capitol ahead of a potential government shutdown, in Washington in April 2011.Andrew Cutraro for TIME
House Speaker John Boehner gestures toward President Barack Obama as Vice President Joe Biden applauds during the president's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 28, 2014.
Boehner gestures toward President Obama as Joe Biden applauds during the president's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 28, 2014. Charles Dharapak—AP
Boehner walks to the House Chamber for a vote on the debt ceiling on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 16, 2013.Alex Wong—Getty Images
Boehner kisses former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the first session of the 114th Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2015.Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Pope Francis waves to crowd from the balcony of the U.S. Capitol building, after his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in Washington on Sept. 24, 2015.Evy Mages—Getty Images
Boehner becomes emotional during his last weekly news conference as Speaker on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 27, 2015. Al Drago—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

The latest scalp is that of House Speaker John Boehner, who announced Sept. 25 that he would sacrifice his position rather than face an effort to unseat him. In the last few weeks before he leaves office, Boehner hopes to help clear the legislative decks to prevent another round of governing crises, probably relying on Democratic votes to do so, a move that is certain to infuriate his opponents even more. The to-do list is long: congressional leaders hope to move measures funding the government through 2016, increasing the debt ceiling, renewing tax breaks essential to businesses, providing vital transportation-infrastructure funds and reauthorizing the controversial Export-Import Bank and the Federal Aviation Administration, all before year’s end. Few believe all will occur.

One advantage in his new status as a short-timer is that the normally taciturn Boehner is now a man unplugged. He no longer chooses to keep his frustration private, even referring to Texas Senator Cruz, a firebrand purist influential in both congressional chambers, as a “jackass” on TV. “The Bible says, Beware of false prophets,” he told Face the Nation’s John Dickerson two days after resigning. “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.”

The knots in Congress and the Republican Party, however, will not be unraveled by Boehner’s departure, even in the best scenario. The man in line to be the next Speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, will face the same bad math: an inability to overcome the Democratic opposition, despite a restless Freedom Caucus of more than 40 members intent on immediate results. And McCarthy knows that the volatile nature of the 2016 presidential primary sweepstakes is only fueling the no-surrender wing of his House membership.

It is a measure of the confusion that besets the GOP that its chief move in the wake of Boehner’s exit is to go in two different directions at once. There is talk of both reconciliation and retaliation. The right wing needs to be brought into the fold, says Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican who is running for whip, the No. 3 leadership position. He described Boehner as operating with too much central authority. “I’m hopeful that our new leadership realizes that they too have to be measured against some yardstick of accountability,” Ross says.

To start the ball rolling, Roskam called a private meeting of House Republicans on Sept. 29 to reflect on the momentousness of deposing a Speaker. Members didn’t exactly “sing ‘Kumbaya,'” Roskam said with a laugh in his office afterward. “But I was very impressed with the reflective tone,” he continued. “They talked to each other, not at one another.”

Listening is something Roskam, who is an informal adviser to McCarthy, wants to do. McCarthy, however, may not have that kind of time. He has gone out of his way to show that he can play tough, even boasting of starting a congressional committee to investigate Hillary Clinton, a move that would, if nothing else, placate the rebels. “Her numbers are dropping,” he crowed.

The cross pressures inside the Republican Party may be too much for anyone to manage. Some longtime Hill watchers say the next Speaker, whether it is McCarthy or someone else, may not last long. “We need to have a common understanding of what success is, and right now we don’t,” Roskam explains. In other words, Republicans must decide which part of the Founding Fathers’ legacy they hope to emulate: the Tea Party rebels who tossed boxes from merchant ships or the Virginia farmer who praised inches before miles.

Odds are, many will choose another quote hanging in Roskam’s office, this one from Exodus: “Stand firm and you will see deliverance,” the passage reads. “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.”

Correction: The original version incorrectly characterized Ross’s comments about Boehner. He described Boehner as a leader who ran the House with too much central authority.

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