It's easy to look at the last week in Republican politics and conclude that John Boehner (R-Ohio) is a terribly ineffectual speaker of the House and needs to be replaced.
After all, Boehner watched as his preferred legislative solution to a looming shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security collapsed amid a conservative revolt last Friday. Then, on Tuesday, Boehner allowed a "clean" DHS funding bill -- meaning no repeal of President Obama's executive orders on immigration included -- to pass the House with a majority of Democratic votes, a direct violation of the so-called "Hastert Rule."
He can't even lead his own conference, the critics shout. He's the speaker in name only, they holler. (Okay, I have said that one before myself.)
And they are, frankly, right. But what they miss is that Boehner's inability to bend the GOP conference to his will has very little to do with him personally and almost everything to do with structural changes in the House and within the Republican Party over the last few years. Those changes make it impossible to compare Boehner's performance to that of his predecessors as GOP speakers, and they call into question the idea that there is anyone in the House GOP conference who could actually lead it.
So, what are the structural changes that have afflicted Boehner? I've spent months talking to Republican members and staff about them. Here are the big ones:
1. The end of earmarks: This is a self-inflicted wound for Boehner -- and one that, in his heart of hearts, he had to know was going to be a problem. Republicans ran on a nationalized message in 2010 of changing the way Washington worked, with a heavy emphasis on reducing spending in the nation's capital. The tea party-led fervor helped Republicans to a 63-seat gain and put Boehner into the speakership.
It also led to Boehner
conceding crusading to ban all earmarks, the process by which members directed money back to their home districts and, in so doing, ensured their perpetual reelections. Leadership was always able to cajole wavering lawmakers with the promise of a few million dollars earmarked for a pet project. No longer.
2. The rise of outside conservative money: If earmarks were the carrot, then squeezing off the money from K Street and other political action committees to a member who wouldn't go along with what leadership wanted was the stick. In the days of Speaker Denny Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, it was made very clear that members not willing to play ball would be cash-starved as they turned to their own reelection races.
The rise of groups such as the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action and the myriad super PACs that sprouted in the wake of the Citizens United ruling ensured that House members no longer had to rely on the goodwill of the leadership to raise money. An alternative money source arose, one that saw members who wouldn't fall in line as the ideal, not a problem.
3. The party's success at the state level: As I've written many times in this space, the 2010 and 2014 elections were more transformative for Republicans at the state legislative level than anywhere else up or down the ballot.
The 900+ state House and Senate seats Republicans have gained since Obama became president led to a 2011 national redistricting process that heavily favored the GOP. Lots of seats that will be safe for the party in perpetuity were created. And in the 2014 elections, even more conservatives got elected. The results of those two elections and the national redraw was a Republican Party in the House that was far more conservative than a decade prior.
At the same time, the ranks of centrist Democrats were decimated by those same two elections. There were 50 Blue Dog Democrats -- the main group of moderates -- prior to the 2010 election; at the start of the 114th Congress there were just 14 left. That thinning of the herd led to a more liberal Democratic caucus -- and a bigger partisan gap between the two sides than at any time in recent political history.
That gap, by the way, is reflected more broadly in the country as well.
4. Conservatism has become big (and good) business. "Being 'conservative' is now a cottage industry that generates revenue and profits," explained one former House senior aide who has left politics. "Whenever there is a legislative deal to be had on anything, there is an immediate opening in the market to undermine that deal."
There are business models -- from fundraising operations to lobby shops to cable networks -- now built entirely on the idea of rigorous conservative purity. The incentive for those organizations is to continue to insist that good enough isn't good enough, that the Ronald Reagan adage that the people who agree with you 80 percent of the time are your friends, not your enemies, is no longer true.
That works terrifically as a business model. It works far less well -- actually almost not at all -- as a legislative strategy. In a body constructed on compromise and flexibility, rigidity is poisonous.
Add it all up and you have a House Republican Conference that has few incentives -- inspired by promise of pain or reward -- to take orders from its leadership. In fact, the unpopularity of the political establishment (and Washington more generally) provides a disincentive for doing so. (Ted Cruz is in the process of building an entire presidential campaign around his refusal to get along with his own party leaders.)
So, no, Boehner hasn't had a great run of things since taking over the House top's job in early 2011. But blaming him primarily for the bumpy road belies a true understanding of the nature of the problems he is faced with. They are deep and they are structural. And no one -- not Boehner or anyone else -- is in a position to solve them.