John Boehner's resignation reflects outsider anger at the GOP establishment
That anger could make it harder for candidates like Jeb Bush to win the Republican presidential primary
As if Jeb Bush needed another problem.
House Speaker John Boehner’s abrupt resignation Friday – after an insurrection by grassroots activists infuriated at the failure of Washington Republicans to thwart President Barack Obama – was another bad omen for a campaign wilting amid anti-establishment fury.
In the 2016 presidential race, outsiders are in, insiders are out and the messy power struggle that is splintering the GOP is going to make winning the nomination – and then capturing the White House – very tough for a party standard bearer like Bush.
Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are dominating the GOP presidential primary following a summer of anger powered by conservative activists, Tea Party agitators and talk radio provocateurs. Candidates like Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, meanwhile, have been overtaken by events, with the traditional GOP path to the nomination blocked by scorched earth insurgents.
Boehner’s departure might be the conservative right’s most famous get yet – even bigger than the coup against his former lieutenant Eric Cantor in a primary election in 2014. And the reaction to his resignation crystallized the split in the GOP with conservatives emboldened and establishment candidates sounding a softer tone that seems increasingly out of step with primary voters.
“You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?” asked Sen. Ted Cruz, a GOP presidential candidate and self-styled scourge of Washington asked right-leaning activists at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday. “Yesterday John Boehner was Speaker of the House. Y’all come to town and somehow that changes. My only request is can you come more often!”
Conservative groups aligned with the Tea Party and the House Freedom Caucus were quick to claim that Boehner’s decision showed they had defeated the more moderate elements of the party. Citizen’s United President David Bosse declared that Boehner’s exit was a “victory for grassroots conservatives.”
FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon linked the Cantor and Boehner ousters and proclaimed: “the tide is changing in Washington.” He pledged the group would force the next set of House leaders to “adhere to conservative principles.”
Trump, who is positioning himself as the ultimate outsider and galvanizing grassroots conservatives to power his anti-establishment crusade, said Boehner’s announcement showed that it was time “to get back to business.”
’Get it done’
“We want people that are going to get it done,” he said addressing Boehner’s decision at the Washington summit where he arrived carrying his Bible. “They get elected. They’re full of vim and vigor. They’re going to change things… They come down to these magnificent vaulted ceilings that you see all over Washington. And what happens? They become different people.”
For his part, Bush simply took to Twitter to praise Boehner’s career.
“John Boehner dedicated his life to public service. Bringing the Holy Father to Congress was a fitting cap to a great career,” Bush said, referring to Pope Francis accepting an invitation from Boehner to speak before lawmakers on Thursday.
It would be impossible to overestimate the strength of antipathy toward Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among the kind of people that show up to Trump’s events in places like Alabama and Dallas. These potential voters believe that the party’s leaders have ignored them and squandered victories the party was handed in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections that led to a GOP majority on Capitol Hill.
Despite the constitutional constraints on action in Washington and the presence of a Democratic President with a veto in the White House, they are furious that the GOP has failed to overturn Obamacare.
The same struggle is now playing out among grassroots activists who want to shut down the government in a bid to defund Planned Parenthood – pitting them against party leaders who believe they must show voters they can govern before the 2016 presidential race.
Shortly after Boehner’s announcement on Friday morning, Ken Cuccinelli, who runs the Senate Conservatives Fund, sent an email to his membership list with the title “You Did It.”
“All of your efforts have brought us to this point, and we’re extremely grateful. To save this great country, we need strong Republican leaders who will stand up for our conservative principles and not back down.”
Former Cantor aide Doug Heye, paraphrasing late New York Yankees hero Yogi Berra who died this week, said Boehner’s departure left the GOP with a dilemma.
’Fork in the road’
“Republicans are coming to a fork in the road – and the question is – whether or not they will take it,” Heye told CNN. “There are a lot of people who wanted to fight – all we could do is fight Obama, fight the Democrats nonstop. Or do we have a strategy of not just throwing punches but landing punches?”
The way the GOP resolves that question could go a long way to sealing the fate of Bush and other Republican establishment candidates and answer another question hanging over the 2016 race: will the GOP nominate a candidate with broad enough appeal to win a general election?
For months, the argument for Bush’s candidacy has been that he would be the most electable candidate, having shown his ability to win in the mighty swing state of Florida. But for now, at least among the activists who dominate the early caucus and primary states, the premium is on desire for something fresh.
A track record of compromise and the ability to work seamlessly with both sides of the aisle is increasingly looking like a blemish on the records of establishment candidates like Bush rather than an asset.
In recent election cycles, even those in which outsiders, for a short time at least captured the zeitgeist, the GOP has eventually returned to establishment figures like Mitt Romney and John McCain.
For Bush to win in 2016, that would have to happen again. But so far, as he lags below 10% in many national polls and struggles for traction in swing states, that is not happening.
And if GOP Rep. Peter King of New York is right, it may already be too late for the establishment to prevail.
King said Boehner’s departure was essentially “throwing raw meat” to “small but loud faction” of the GOP and was bad news for the party.
“It signals that crazies have taken over the party,” King told CNN. “This has never happened before in our country. Where a person doing a job, the Speaker of the house, was removed from office, by a small faction because they want these unreasonable demands that if you don’t agree with them you shut the government down. This is insanity.”
One candidate left with a delicate balancing act after Boehner’s demise is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, currently enjoying a polling spurt after a strong showing in the CNN GOP debate earlier this month.
Rubio, a former Florida House speaker, is simultaneously angling for the establishment lane of the party – trying to elbow out his mentor Bush – while seeking to retain credibility with the right. His delicate task was summed up in his reaction to Boehner’s resignation – news of which came through as he was on stage for the Values Voter Summit.
“I’m not here to bash anyone — but the time has come to turn the page. The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country,” Rubio said.
At the risk of angering far-right activists, Kasich went the farthest among the presidential candidates in supporting Boehner on Friday.
“It just reflects the dysfunction in Washington,” Kasich said. “Where people cannot even honor somebody who has dedicated their life to public service… He built the largest Republican majority in modern time… I guess no good deed goes undone or unpunished because some of the most savage attacks on him come from Republicans.”
Watching the Republican infighting from the sidelines, many Democratic strategists view the increasing pressure on GOP candidates to appease the far right as a harbinger of good things to come for their party in 2016.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, the president of Hart Research – a firm that has done recent polling for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund – said Friday’s developments raised serious questions about “whether the Republican Party can survive as a coherent, functioning political entity.”
“Since Republicans have become the majority party in the House, their brand has really been severely damaged,” Garin said. “It’s not that people necessarily love the Democratic Party or have a very high regard for it,” but Republicans, Garin said, “have alienated huge swaths of the electorate, particularly millennials and important groups of women voters.”
Pointing to his firm’s polling for Planned Parenthood Action Fund earlier this summer, Garin argued the brinksmanship over shutting down the government in a futile effort to defund Planned Parenthood has not done the Republican Party any favors.
While the unrest within the GOP may continue to push the presidential candidates farther to the right, several Republican strategists cautioned that the most electable candidate often prevails. And in the long run, Boehner’s departure may have little impact on the presidential race — beyond being a symbol of division within the GOP.
Veteran Republican strategist Kevin Madden said Boehner may have served as an applause line for some of the candidates Friday, but that “voters aren’t going to be making their decision on our next nominee through the lens of a House leadership figure.”
“The more important question for each candidate,” he said, “is whether you can persuade voters that you have the unique ability to lead the country and can be an effective commander in chief. You have to answer that on your own, no matter who the Speaker of the House is.”