In “On the House: A Washington Memoir,” Boehner also highlights something important about the nature of power within the Republican Party: how it worked when he was its leader in Congress, in the Trump years that followed and today. Sometimes that power has been exercised to the party’s great political benefit, while at other times — like right now — it threatens to consume the GOP.
Boehner describes a revealing 2011 exchange with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), far-right bomb-thrower and future presidential candidate, who demanded a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee; he rebuffed her:
Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact. “Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,” she said, “and Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.”I wasn’t the one with the power, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now.She was right, of course.
Boehner describes the evolution of conservative media between the early 1990s and the Obama years as a descent into “Looneyville,” but what really changed was the nature of the relationship between that media and the Republican Party.
In those earlier years, conservative media amplified the GOP’s ideas, spreading them to a wide audience and converting people to the conservative cause. But over time, the media tail came to wag the political dog.
What Boehner really shows us is how the world we live in now came to be. Today, conservative media isn’t just a locus of power on the right. Its own needs, preferences and incentives set the party’s agenda to a greater extent than ever.
That’s why so many of the key voices in the Republican Party today are concerned not primarily but entirely with their next media appearance, rather than the work of lawmaking. While there have always been “show horses” in Congress, the party is now oriented almost entirely toward whatever keeps the Fox viewers from changing the channel.
So while Democrats pass trillions of dollars in new spending, Republicans spend all their time whining about “cancel culture” and trying to make life miserable for transgender kids. Instead of conservative media amplifying the party’s message, it’s the other way around.
You could argue that because they’re in the minority, Republicans have no way to put their policy preferences into action anyway, so they might as well shout about Mr. Potato Head. If they controlled even one house of Congress they could mount endless bogus Benghazi-style investigations to paint a Democratic administration as corrupt.
But they can’t, so there’s no margin in knowing or caring about policy. In that situation, those most adept at the performative aspect of politics inevitably rise to prominence.
But what Boehner reveals here is that this was true even when the party was in power. What Boehner calls “the crazy caucus of the GOP” was already taking over when he was speaker, foreshadowing their increased dominance when the ultimate performative politician — Donald Trump — became president.
And so, with complete GOP control of Washington in 2017, you didn’t see the emergence of serious conservative policy wonks making lasting and consequential change. While it might have happened here and there — Stephen Miller succeeded at making immigration policy as racist and cruel as possible — for the most part the crazy caucus was still in charge.
Who were the dominant Republican figures of the era, beyond Trump himself? People like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), known for their endless Fox appearances and maniacal loyalty to Trump. They weren’t concerned with how to use power to create change; they just wanted to Own the Libs.
Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the party’s leader in Congress and nobody’s idea of a telegenic presence, turned out to be an absolute dud as a legislator. After easily passing a tax cut for the wealthy and corporations (not exactly hard to do), he managed no further legislation of consequence.
In many ways, you can draw a straight line between Newt Gingrich, the central Republican figure of the 1990s, through the tea party, then through Sarah Palin, then through Trump, and finally to the Jan. 6th rioters and far-right extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.). Boehner shows us how this through line really started to unravel.
All those figures wanted to make politics as coarse and bitter as possible, and define Democrats as not just wrong but evil. The conflict between the right and the left, Gingrich once told a conservative audience, “has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.”
But each of them had a different relationship to power. Gingrich wanted it desperately. Palin tossed it away to pursue a doomed TV career. Trump came to it by accident and couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it, other than line his pockets. And the media-obsessed Republican figures of today? They hardly even care about it at all.
It’s not that, say, Cruz wouldn’t very much like to be president. But people like him are so focused on whipping up the angriest portions of the GOP base and generating clicks and retweets that they can’t be bothered to produce any kind of meaningful policy project, let alone figure out what it would take to make it happen.
As Boehner’s story highlights, things began to go awry for Republicans long before now. If the stars align, the “crazy caucus” might allow them to stumble their way to victory again, as they did in 2016. And along the way, the destruction will continue piling up.