In case you’re misled by the relationship of the picture to the headline, let me be clear that I come to bury John Boehner, not praise him.
Yeah, the retired Ohio Congressman and former Speaker of the House just published a kiss-and-tell that excoriates Donald Trump and the GOP that Boehner once led. In the book (On the House: A Washington Memoir) and the press he has done to promote it, Boehner has wailed on the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann (remember her?); called Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election “bullshit” and lamented how Don hoodwinked his loyal followers; pulled no punches in calling the proto-Trumpian Tea Party that dislodged him from his position as Speaker “far-right knuckleheads” and “political terrorists” (“They weren’t conservatives. They were crazy”); dubbed Sarah Palin “one of the chief crazies”; and in general been withering in his contempt for what the Republican Party has become.
USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page called it “an extraordinary rebuke of the current-day GOP, an excoriation without precedent in modern times.”
I love seeing Republicans rip into each other, especially when one of them is actually speaking the truth about the madness that has gripped that party over the past fill-in-the-blank number of years. (I’d go up as high as 100, but certainly accelerated since 1964.) I was delighted to see a prominent Republican, even a retired one — a former Speaker of House as recently as 2015, no less — go off on Trump and his allies like that.
And yet Boehner reports that he still voted for Trump last November.
John’s Non-Changing Stripes
In some ways it’s not a shock.
Boehner’s 2015 ouster, humiliating as it was at the time, proved a blessing in disguise for him, as he was thrown blissfully clear of the shitstorm that hit his party that summer. Yet from comfy retirement, he was a reliable Trump supporter, even if he clearly relished not being enmeshed in the grinding, day-to-day nightmare of politics in the MAGA regime.
In 2019, long after Trump had exhausted any “give him a chance” goodwill and proved worse than even his worst critics predicted, Boehner told the Caxambas Republican Club on Marco Island, FL where he and his wife live half the year, “Donald Trump, in my view, by and large, has done the right things.”
Among the “right things” he cited? The deficit-busting 2017 tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and the disastrous trade war with China. (You’re welcome, Ohio!) It’s true that the tax cut was a bullseye for traditional Republican priorities (NB: not a compliment), even if it was more shameless than usual, and Sinophobic xenophobia ticks a time-honored GOP box too. But whatever happened to “fiscal conservatism” and “free trade”? Like most Republicans, Boehner seemed fine with a wholesale rejection of some of the fundamental tenets that had long guided his party and its ideology, in a Faustian bargain for power with the Donald.
And now Boehner wants to come out of his Florida hidey-hole and act like an éminence grise, taking his old party to task?
Despite his support for Trump, Insurrectionist Nation is unsurprisingly not too pleased with Boehner.
Ted Cruz — back from Cancun and ever the grandstander — theatrically posed a signed copy of Boehner’s book in his fireplace after “some smartass,” in Rafael’s words, gave him a copy. (At least his house has heat now.) It’s understandable, given that in the book Boehner calls Cruz a “reckless asshole” and a “lunatic,” but there’s never been any love lost between these two. Previously Boehner had called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” (a description he repeats in the memoir) and said that he’d “never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” For the cherry on top, The Insider reports that “Boehner added an unscripted, ‘PS, Ted Cruz, go fuck yourself’ in the audiobook recording of the memoir.”
(Insert catfight sound here.)
As I say, I welcome Boehner’s critique as part of the national conversation. It can’t hurt. I doubt it will sway many conservatives, given how deep the Kool-Aid runs over there and how solidly that community’s flat earth beliefs have calcified. If watching Trump try to foment the violent overthrow of the government didn’t sour them on their boy, I doubt a self-aggrandizing book by a has-been Congressman whom they already kicked to the curb once before will. But it can’t hurt.
But how can you think your former party has gone batshit crazy, bemoan its descent into Know Nothing demagoguery, and blame Trump for mounting a coup d’etat, and then still vote for him? Mere partisanship is not sufficient to explain it. It speaks to the deeper disease within the GOP.
It’s the same problem I have with my own conservative friends, some of whom voted for Trump twice, and now want to go on as if there was nothing alarming about the past five years, or their role in it.
Sorry, fellas: we’re not gonna let you get away with that.
Come on Guys, Don’t Overthrow the Government!
“I voted for Donald Trump. I thought that his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in,” Boehner told Time Magazine.
Gee, which ones? Blowing up the deficit? Kidnapping children? Soliciting the help of a foreign power to win an election? Spreading lies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans? Inciting a violent insurrection that aimed to overturn a fair election and murder his own vice president?
Or maybe it’s just their shared affinity for orange skin tone.
For the record, Boehner said he didn’t push back harder against the Capitol insurrection because he’s “retired.” From simple human decency, I gather.
“I try to stay out of the day-to-day rumble of politics. I really didn’t need to speak up,” he said.
As we learned from Rules of the Game, everyone has their reasons, right?
Like many Republicans, Boehner cited Trump’s pell mell packing of the federal judiciary with right wing judges as a greater good that overrode almost everything else. (Even if one thinks having hardline reactionary jurists is a good thing and not monstrous in its own right, is that really a utilitarian calculation that justifies Trump’s other horrors?)
Boehner told Time, “I thought the choices for the Supreme Court were top notch. At the end of the day, who gets nominated to the federal courts is really the most important thing a president does.”
As my pal Walter Sujansky writes, “Uh, yeah. Much more important than upholding the very concept of democracy as enshrined in a 230-year-old constitution that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to achieve and defend.”
Boehner also told Time, “If it were me, I would get the party back to the principles of the Republican Party: fiscal responsibilities, strong national defense. They need to reinvigorate the party based around our principles and our ideals, not around personalities.”
What a bunch of bullshit. Where was he when Trump was licking Putin’s boots or destroying 75 years of postwar American security policy or adding over a trillion dollars to the deficit, all of which happened while he was telling senior citizens in Florida that Trump was doing “the right things”?
He can’t even say that the insurrection changed his view. January 6th did not come out of nowhere, but was only the culmination. Election Day 2020 came after months of Trump pre-promoting the Big Lie and undermining confidence in the integrity of the vote for millions of Americans, a sickness that continues to fester. Was Boehner cool with that? I guess so, because he still pulled the lever marked “R.”
To wake up and clear his throat in polite objection only after the attack on a Congress he used to lead in the building where he used to work is utter dishonesty.
To be fair, Boehner was not entirely silent about the insurrection. On January 7th, he tweeted this:
I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap. The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic.
But in the wake of the insurrection he has not expressed any regret about his November vote, suggesting that he thinks having Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is a fair tradeoff for that too.
A Day at the Beach
CNN’s Chris Cillizza brings us to the heart of the matter.
Rather than some sort of speak-truth-to-power hero, Boehner is typical of the broader Republican approach to Trump: Hold your nose and vote for him because, uh, judges.
Boehner is not the exception to the Republican rule. He is the rule. He was willing to overlook Trump’s weaponizing of race and gender, his decidedly un-conservative approach to debt and deficit, his open disdain at the idea of being “presidential,” all because Trump nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court.
That’s the deal Republicans made with themselves way back when Trump won the nomination in 2016. Boehner was no different.
John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership eagerly embraced the raw power politics that had come to define the GOP over the preceding decades, the racist dogwhistling, the McCarthyite demonization of their Democratic opposition — all the things that paved the way for Trump. They were willing to make the devil’s bargain to get what they wanted — whether it was tax cuts for the rich, or a federal judiciary packed with right wing zealots, or the chance to gerrymander Congressional districts for the next decade. They can’t now look at the shitshow that resulted and tut tut over it. And when they try, we ought to slap them like Sidney Poitier did in In the Heat of the Night.
Boehner wants to be seen as a good guy, but he ain’t. He wasn’t then and he isn’t now. He’s part of the goddam problem.
He gave his recent phone interview to Time from his beachhouse in Florida, where he reported that he was sitting on his lanai looking out “at a nice, white beach” on the Gulf of Mexico.
How perfect. A man who was Mitch McConnell’s partner in crime in blind, hyperpartisan obstruction of the Obama administration (before he was forced out by an even more fanatical wing of his party) a man who backed Trump for four years when he no longer had any professional stakes on the line, is now enjoying well-feathered tropical retirement while trying to have it both ways, positioning himself as a unicorn-like “decent” Republican even as he continues to abet the indecent ones. (Which is a redundancy.)
John Boehner is a living embodiment of the hard truth that Trump’s rise was not a hostile takeover of the GOP, as it is sometimes portrayed: it was the logical end result of a morally bankrupt party that had abandoned all principle in the pursuit of sheer power. And it was “mainstream” Republicans like Johnny Boy that allowed it to happen — facilitated it, in fact — and even now are complicit.
Post-Trump, the GOP wants to be seen as a legitimate political party again, and is trying to gaslight us into thinking that is so, even as it continues to defend the Big Lie, downplay January 6th, and worship at the altar of Trump. But when the best it can offer as voices of reason are people like John Boehner who still enable and abet Donald with their actions, even if they offer all-but-meaningless criticism of him with their words, that posturing will continue to be a cruel joke.
Dear RNC: Wake me when Adam Kinzinger is your nominee. I don’t like his Freedom Caucus ideology, but at least he has integrity and the courage of his convictions. Not holding my breath, by the way.
As for the former speaker, let me deploy his own words back at him:
“John Boehner, go fuck yourself.”