The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Boehner just sacrificed his career for the good of the Republican Party

Speaker Boehner says he planned to resign at the end of the year, but it has become clear that "this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm." (Video: Reuters)

The stunning decision by House Speaker John Boehner to resign from office in October is a sign of not only his inability to lead a congressional party riven between its establishment and tea party wings, but also the toll fighting that fight has taken on him -- and the GOP more broadly.

Almost since the day he became speaker -- following the tea party-led takeover of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections -- Boehner had been caught betwixt and between. His roots were firmly in the establishment end of the party, having spent decades in Congress and moving up the leadership chain not once but twice.

But he owed his majority to a group of House Republicans elected in large part on their promise to stand up to leaders -- of both parties -- in Washington. Boehner spent the first few years of his speakership trying to play nice with that rump group -- insisting that what united them was far greater than what divided them.

It didn't work. The first major defeat for Boehner authored by his own conference came in late 2012 on the "fiscal cliff" fight. Boehner tried to move a bill that would extend the current tax breaks for everyone making less than $1 million a year. Less than 24 hours after he unveiled his proposal, he had to admit defeat because the GOP votes simply weren't there.

As I wrote at the time:

Boehner is, ostensibly, the leader of the GOP right now since he is the Republican foil to the president. When that leader can't rally a majority of votes in a chamber his party controls for a proposal he has made clear is personally and politically important to him, it suggests one thing: no one is at the controls.

Little did we know that the fiscal cliff fight was only the beginning. In the summer of 2013, the farm bill, typically one of the rare instances of bipartisan cooperation in Congress, failed to pass on a floor vote after more than five dozen Republicans rebelled -- embarrassing Boehner, again.

In February 2014, it was the same story all over again. Boehner tried to rally the GOP conference behind a plan that would allow the debt limit to be raised while extracting a number of concessions from the Obama administration. It failed. “We don’t have 218 votes," Boehner said at a news conference announcing the failure. "When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing.”

Then, this February, Boehner watched -- again, again, again -- as his attempt to fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks (and, in so doing, avoid a partial government shutdown) went down in flames.

That vicious cycle did two things: (1) It revealed to anyone paying attention -- the White House, the Senate -- that Boehner had no real control over his members, and (2) it emboldened conservatives to begin making bigger and grander demands to extract their support.

By the start of this year, it had become quite clear that Boehner's ability to hold onto the speakership was in question. While he won the job in a floor vote in January, 25 of his GOP colleagues voted for someone else -- the biggest rebellion against a sitting speaker in more than 100 years. That more than two dozen Republicans would vote against Boehner in an election in which there was no true alternative candidate was telling: They just weren't afraid of him anymore.

Meanwhile, outside Congress, Donald Trump was on the rise -- with a message that boils down to this: Everyone in politics is lying to you and is bad at their jobs. Republican leaders are the worst of all because they were elected to represent your views and have caved to President Obama and other Washington Democrats.

The prominence in the 2016 race of Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina -- none of whom had ever held office before -- speaks to the present mood coursing through the GOP electorate. Scott Walker's candidacy fell victim to that anti-everything (or at least everything political) sentiment and others, including Jeb Bush, are struggling to deal with the deep distrust and, in many cases, dislike that the party's grass roots have for the people elected to lead them.

That was the landscape facing Boehner with another possible (and probably likely) government shutdown looming amid threats from the party's conservatives that they would shut down the government unless all federal funding for Planned Parenthood was totally stripped. And if it wasn't Planned Parenthood funding, it might have been something else.

Faced with watching the same awful movie again, Boehner decided to offer himself as a sacrifice to conservatives who wanted him out: I will leave if you vote to keep the government open. Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, one of the most vocal opponents of Boehner, summed it up during remarks at the Values Voters Summit in Washington on Friday.

The truth was that Boehner and his allies knew that a coup attempt was brewing and that putting it down would have taken considerable effort and was not a sure thing. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows (R) had put in a legislative measure to vacate the chair of the speaker over the summer, and insurrection was in the air.

Boehner, having achieved a life goal of bringing a pope to Capitol Hill, quite clearly saw two paths for his future. The first was to continue banging his head against the wall built against his priorities by the tea party wing of the party. The second was offering his resignation up as a way to try to move the party forward -- in the near term and the long term.

He, smartly, chose the second option. Whether his sacrifice will be meaningful very much remains to be seen.