To hear the conventional wisdom in Washington, John Boehner’s surprise resignation announcement last week represented a sort of 21st century secular passion play. The noble Ohioan, we are told, sacrificed his career at the peak of his powers to save his party from self-destructive conflict, and his country from a government shutdown. And indeed, the riches showered on us all by Boehner’s atonement for our sins might well include such Beltway prizes as the salvation of Eximbank, or yea, even a Highway Bill!
The reality is a bit less stirring, I’m afraid. Boehner is simply accelerating a planned retirement in a way that will also accelerate the timetable for clearing the one-year lobbying ban for former Members. By the time the frost is on the pumpkins in 2016, he’ll be among the richest people on K Street after a year of cooling his heels at a Florida golf resort condo.
Moreover, the blessings Boehner has vouchsafed Washington could turn out to be ephemeral. As the budget wizard Stan Collender has observed, the avoidance of a shutdown this week has massively increased the odds of a shutdown in December. And Ted Cruz could personally wreck the dreams of those who imagine a brief Era of Good Feelings where Boehner and House Democrats liberate all sorts of gridlocked legislation.
So does that mean congressional Republicans are doomed to perpetually refight the internal battles that led to Boehner’s resignation? No, not at all. No matter what happens in December, there will likely follow an intra-party election year truce in Congress (though probably not on the presidential nomination primary trail). And then, if Republicans win the White House and hang onto control of Congress, most of the fighting will go away as the party comes together joyfully to implement most of the conservative movement’s agenda.
This last conclusion may come as a shock to those used to hearing about various struggles for the soul of the Republican Party, or the many cries of treason aimed at congressional leaders from the Right and from the grassroots. But what must be understood is that virtually all of these conflicts revolve around arguments over strategy and tactics, not principles, goals or policies.
Every single congressional Republican is for repealing Obamacare. They all, even the most egregious RINOs, oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal. All but a very small handful favor defunding Planned Parenthood, criminalizing abortions to the maximum extent the Supreme Court allows, slashing upper-end and corporate taxes, dumping Medicaid on the states, and cutting safety net funding while boosting defense spending. The fighting has been over how to advance these goals when Republicans do not entirely control the federal government. If they do entirely control the federal government, the fighting will mostly go away, or will migrate to new ideological demands that are too extreme to contemplate just now.
The “moderation” in the GOP that conservatives attack and the MSM applauds will look very different if Republicans are no longer faced with immovable Democratic opposition at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. This should have been made plain back in the summer of 2012, when plans for a post-election conservative policy blitz utilizing the budget reconciliation process—which disposes of filibusters—were circulating on the breeze of GOP hopes that Mitt Romney would win and inherit a Republican-controlled Senate as well.
Since then the targets of such a single-party offensive have only grown: presidential executive orders on carbon emissions and immigration; Obama diplomatic efforts; the Obama “tilt” in judicial appointments; along with such hardy perennials as Obamacare, the New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs, and progressive taxation. And without question, the “treachery” of John Roberts has ensured that conservative litmus tests for the Supreme Court will be stricter and more focused on purely predictable conservative policy outcomes than ever before.
If, of course, Republicans lose a third consecutive presidential election, the current battles over strategy and tactics might reemerge with a vengeance, as conservatives grow frantic over the frightful damage being done to the America of their imagination by the free-spending, tyrannical, Muslim-loving, race-card-playing and baby-killing Democrats who somehow keep getting elected. And at that point pragmatic Republicans may become truly, not just strategically, moderate in counseling their compatriots that it’s time to stop pursuing the fever dreams of the Goldwater campaign.
Until then, however, don’t believe the hype about the Republican civil war—or for that matter, John Boehner’s salvific role in healing divisions over strategy and tactics.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.