But he also revealed recently to Time magazine that he voted for Trump in 2020, saying that “his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in” and that Trump’s picks for the Supreme Court were “top notch.”
By acknowledging that he voted for the president, Boehner exposes the hollowness of his headline-grabbing criticism, which he has theatrically repeated for TV audiences, red wine in hand. His ballot-box admission signals to mainstream Republican voters that loyalty to the party and its policies matter more than how the party’s leaders govern — and that it is okay to vote for Trump despite his disturbing personal conduct.
Boehner’s willingness to criticize Trump’s leadership style while also endorsing his policies is not unique among GOP elder statesmen. James Baker, who was secretary of state under George H.W. Bush and chief of staff under Ronald Reagan, made the same rationale in voting for Trump, saying: “I won’t leave my party. You can say my party has left me because the leader of it has.” After flirting with voting for Joe Biden last year, Baker said he would ultimately cast his ballot for Trump because of conservative judges, deregulation and tax cuts.
Similarly, Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader, has said that some members of the Republican caucus “are so far right they’re about to fall out of the Capitol,” and shares Boehner’s dislike of Cruz. But in 2020, Dole was the sole living former GOP presidential nominee to openly support Trump and said that the Commission on Presidential Debates was biased because none of the Republican members of the bipartisan group supported the president.
It is understandable that these men feel a loyalty to the party they helped build and the values that have defined it for decades. Indeed, the Trump administration reflected some of those same priorities, ushering in record tax cuts and appointing judges favored by social conservatives. But these leaders no doubt understand the threat posed by Trump, who among his many sins tried to get a foreign head of state to dig up dirt on a political opponent and sought to overturn a free and fair election. Such behavior undermines the entire political system and shakes faith in government. Eventually, their support will come back to haunt Republicans, as voters defect from the party.
Moreover, by openly endorsing the idea of voting for Trump, Republican elders undercut their own warnings. If Trump is worthy of their vote, then they must not consider Trump as radical or dangerous as their warnings suggest.
Many Republicans who currently hold office still live in fear of the wrath of Trump or his most devoted followers, who could snuff them out in a primary. As a result, it falls more on those like Boehner, who don’t have a need or a desire to reenter politics, to create some sort of guardrails against the very extremists he derides.
That is not to say there wouldn’t be ramifications for powerful GOP figures who withhold support for the vindictive former president or condemn their party. Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), two of Trump’s most vocal critics, were censured by Arizona’s Republican Party for endorsing Biden. The Wyoming GOP also censured Rep. Liz Cheney, a member of House Republican leadership, for her vote to impeach Trump.
Cruz has already responded to Boehner’s criticisms of him by calling it “drunken, bloviated scorn.” And it’s no coincidence that Boehner’s exit from Congress, earlier than planned, came amid the ascendancy of the restive GOP movement that would later give rise to Trump.
Boehner’s rehabilitation tour will probably earn him a few admirers and garner him praise for loudly proclaiming that the GOP is too far gone even for someone like him, who entered Congress as a self-described “bomb-thrower.” But as long as he gives in to the same radicals who caused him to flee Congress, Boehner is blowing as much smoke as the cigarettes he’s so fond of puffing.