The date was Oct. 14, 2013, two weeks into a government shutdown engineered by Republicans in the House of Representatives who were trying once again to kill Obamacare. Scheduled for the next day was a vote backed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants that would have reopened the government and avoided the likely disaster of the U.S. government defaulting on its debt.
The setting was a low-budget eatery on Capitol Hill called the “Tortilla Coast,” not known for its ambiance, as The Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger described it, but for its “utter lack of ambiance, its “windows bedecked with decals promising ‘MARGARITAS’ and ‘BBQ RIBS.'” It’s the kind of place you go, its manager said, “if you don’t want to look like you’re showing off.”
In a windowless basement garret called the Rio Room, 14 to 20 of the House’s most conservative Republicans gathered around a table presided over by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), still basking in the acclaim from the right for his all-night marathon of a speech weeks earlier designed to thwart any compromise. While Cruz’s exact words that day at Tortilla Coast were not reported, there was no doubt his mission was to stiffen the spine of the no-compromise bloc in the House just as he had galvanized the “hell no” caucus through the summer, traveling the country with an anti-Obamacare “town hall,” and in his faux-filibuster, so-called because it did not delay any vote.
And he did, with a lot of help from the conservative Heritage Foundation. The next day, realizing he didn’t have the votes, Boehner and the rest of the House Republican leadership withdrew their proposal.
It was a deep humiliation for Boehner and his leadership team and a final demonstration that he had become a leader without followers. It crippled an already wounded speaker.
The next day, as Boehner was leaving his favorite watering hole, Pete’s Diner, he expressed confidence to a reporter that a deal could be hammered out anyway. “Oh, yeah,” he told the Washington Examiner as he left the greasy spoon. “Oh, yeah.” (The competing eateries gave rise to a factional myth, Pete’s as the establishment hangout versus Tortilla Coast for upstarts.)
Thanks to then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the shutdown finally did indeed come to an end on Oct. 17, but in a humiliating fashion: Boehner had to rely on House Democrats to make up for the Republicans who had abandoned him. “We fought the good fight. We just didn’t win,” Boehner told a Cincinnati radio host.
He hasn’t won since.
In fact, conservatives in the Republican conference would go on to thwart Boehner at every turn, confronting him with regular threats of challenges to his speakership should he not obey their every wish.
And Cruz, deeply disliked by some of his colleagues in the Senate and devoid of power there, seemed to always have a hand in it, down to the end, as he egged on House conservatives all through September of this year to once again risk shutting down the government in an attempt to “defund” Planned Parenthood, a tactic once again opposed by Boehner.
Back in 2013, Democrats, and even a few Republicans had started calling the senator from Texas “Speaker Cruz.”
Boehner had another name for Cruz at a recent gathering in Steamboat Spring, Colo.: “jackass.” Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, he added yet another: “false prophet.”
“The Bible says, beware of false prophets,” Boehner said. “And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean, this whole idea that we were going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013, this plan never had chance.
“But over the course of the August recess in 2013, and the course of September, a lot of my Republican colleagues who knew it was a fool’s errand, really they were getting all this pressure from home to do this. And so we have 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 that they know, they know are never going to happen.”
“Is Ted Cruz a false prophet?” asked host John Dickerson.
“Listen,” said Boehner, “you can pick a lot of names out. I’ll let you choose them. I’ll refer you to my remark at a fundraiser I made in August in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.”
Boehner is about to depart. Cruz is running for president. The fall of Boehner is a victory for Cruz, over which he is openly gloating.
More broadly, the fall of Boehner and the rise of Cruz are yet another sign of the profound cultural and political change in Washington over the past decade that has made pragmatists — even deeply conservative pragmatists like Boehner — an endangered species, and shifted power to those on the extremes, who command attention and therefore the power to sway votes through the media and social media by their ideology and the quality of their theatrical performance — in Cruz’s case mostly his marathon speech — rather than by their legislative prowess.
When Boehner began his career as a legislator, in Ohio’s State Assembly, Cruz was a teenage ideologue — a whiz kid member of the “Free Enterprise Institute” in Houston, where they studied conservative giants like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek the way rabbinical students tackle the Talmud. He was a student at Princeton and then Harvard Law School when Boehner was the fourth-ranking House Republican.
“The institutional contrast between Cruz and Speaker Boehner is stunning,” said congressional scholar Sarah Binder, of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution. “The upstart Cruz who builds his power on the outside and pressures those within versus Boehner who built his power from within the institution — as both committee and party leader. At the end of the day, Boehner has been a lawmaker at heart…. We don’t really use the old ‘work horse vs. showhorse’ distinction across lawmakers anymore, but it seems apt in a way to tap the differences between Boehner and Cruz,” she said in an e-mail interview with The Washington Post.
To be sure, Boehner was having trouble controlling his conference before Cruz was elected to the Senate in 2012. And Cruz did not humiliate and ultimately topple Boehner on his own. He had plenty of tea party conservatives in the House helping him out, not to mention the tea party movement itself and the Heritage Foundation. Indeed, the dynamics that drove Boehner from office had been building for some time, accelerating with the election of President Obama in 2008, who became the chief target and rallying point for the growth of the grass-roots on the far right.
Yet no single conservative in the House had galvanized and excited conservative opinion as had Cruz in the summer and fall of 2013. His relentless crusade whipped up tea party activists who made it clear that compromise would have consequences for Republicans.
“My sense,” said Binder, “is that Senator Cruz is just the latest and most salient of the ‘false prophets’ that Boehner referenced today. To be sure, Senator Cruz was a driving force in encouraging House conservatives to force their party into several legislative box canyons — over Obamacare repeal in 2013, again over homeland security funding in 2015, and most recently over Planned Parenthood,” she said. “But Cruz’s strategies are emblematic of a very organized and vocal far right within the broader Republican party — Heritage Action, Club for Growth, right-side talk radio, ‘Tea Party’ adherents and so forth. That’s an entire ‘industry’ if you will encouraging GOP conservatives and threatening GOP moderates (‘RINOs’) with a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy. Those pressures led the GOP to oppose so much of the first two years of the Democrats’ agenda in 2009-10 and since then have pushed GOP lawmakers to resist compromise on the big (and small) issues of the day.”
Perhaps no speaker of the House would be capable of controlling these forces. Party discipline, historically, depended on members’ desires to ascend the ranks of the committee system in the House and Senate and to pass legislation that gave them bragging rights in their districts. But with other, faster routes to fame and power available, as demonstrated not only by Cruz but President Obama, these incentives have diminished.
And among the consequences is legislative inactivity. Indeed, it took Pope Francis to remind Congress that “your own responsibility is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.” Today’s challenges, he told them, require “a spirit of cooperation.”
Boehner was so tearful during the pope’s speech, his eyes often shielded by his handkerchief, that it was hard to gauge his reaction to those words.
“There is a belief in the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit can move us,” Dickerson said to Boehner, a Catholic. Did the pope’s visit help “to make this decision for you?”
“I think it helped clear the picture,” responded Boehner.
He said he “woke up Friday morning, walked up to Starbucks and back, and walked to Pete’s and back, my regular jaunts in the morning. And at, 7:45 Friday morning, I said, ‘yes, it’s time to do this.'”
Later that day, Cruz was celebrating Boehner’s departure at the annual Values Voter Summit, a gathering of social conservatives in Washington, who cheered the news with whoops and hollers.
“You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?” Cruz said. “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?”
Boehner leaves his job as a defeated man. Cruz has bolstered his standing on the right.
Like ancient tribal rivalries, factional feuds in Congress build in layers and last for years, each new grievance justifying the next offense. And there remains a trail of bitterness that can only portend further disunity for Republicans in Congress with Boehner’s allies now pointing fingers at their leader’s chief tormentor; they will not forget.
“Classless, tasteless and counterproductive,” was how Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla), a close friend of Boehner, described Cruz’s reaction to Boehner’s resignation. “This is a guy that for 25 years has a distinguished record in the House,” he said.
“I’m talking about Boehner. Certainly not talking about Senator Cruz…. I would stack his record of accomplishment against any of these people who are being critical of him. What have they done? Nothing.”