Mayor of Crazytown
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
With the exception of Paul Ryan, every Speaker of the House since Carl Albert has written a memoir. That includes John Boehner, whose newly published autobiography On the House is decidedly different from its predecessors.
For one thing, it is by far the most profanity-laden memoir ever written by a former Speaker. (By my count, Boehner uses curse words – usually an f-bomb, s-bomb, or some version thereof – 63 times. And that doesn’t include Easter Egg profanities hiding in his audiobook.) It is also unusually bitter, as Boehner repeatedly disparages media outlets, advocacy groups, and “knucklehead” House Republicans for undermining his speakership.
Looking past the name-calling and salty language, however, Boehner’s autobiography contains some valuable insights into a major theme of his speakership: the struggle to exercise legislative leadership over a congressional party that includes members who disdain compromise.
Boehner clearly views himself as a legislator first and foremost. He recalls with pride his role in passing the education reform law No Child Left Behind when he was chairman of the House Education Committee. Boehner also conveys frustration at the failure of Congress to enact critical legislation during the Obama Administration. Immigration reform fell by the wayside, weeks were wasted on a government shutdown in 2013 that accomplished nothing, and a “grand bargain” to balance the federal budget was never reached.
The former Speaker argues that Obama’s arrogance and poor negotiating skills contributed to many of these failures. But he also blames members of his own party who eschewed all bipartisan compromise, made dangerously unrealistic demands, and mindlessly attacked the nation’s political institutions. They were, in his words, “total moron[s],” “cranks,” “screwballs,” “kooks,” “crazies,” and “knuckleheads” (his favorite term of disparagement). The GOP was turning into "Crazytown," he laments, and "when I took the Speaker's gavel in 2011...I became its mayor."
Far-right Republicans who were first elected to the House in 2010 are a particular target of Boehner’s ire. “They didn’t really want legislative victories,” he opines. “They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.” Furthermore, “some of them had me in their sights from day one” as a “liberal collaborator” because he was open to reaching deals with Democrats in order to enact legislation. They quickly gravitated to lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the “head lunatic,” whom Boehner especially deplores.
Boehner believes that these lawmakers were incentivized by two outside sources: the conservative media, which gave them a platform to espouse their absolutist rhetoric, and hyper-partisan donors and interest groups who were eager to contribute campaign money to ideological purists. "By 2013," he writes, “the chaos caucus in the House had built up their own power base thanks to fawning right-wing media and outrage-driven fundraising cash.”
He is hardly alone in making this claim. One rank and file Republican grumbled in 2014 that “Jesus himself couldn’t be the Speaker and get 218 Republicans behind something.” More recently, Jonathan Rauch remarked at a panel at the Catholic University of America (where I teach) that a major threat facing the country is “the tendency of politicians and others to denigrate our institutions for fun and profit and as a way of self-promotion.”
There is also empirical evidence that Boehner’s own party in Congress has indeed radicalized, and that conservative activist news outlets have proliferated in recent years. In my own research, I have found a relationship between lawmaker support for Boehner on key votes and their faith in party loyalty in general (though campaign spending by ideological groups did not seem to matter).
But while outside forces may have created a challenging environment for Boehner to govern, On the House unintentionally suggests another reason for Boehner’s difficulties: his personal aversion to the exercise of power.
Boehner opens the book with this tell-tale sentence: “Nancy Pelosi has a killer instinct—something I never had (well, not much of one anyway).” He later admits that “I’m not about power and never had been,” adding that “I couldn’t care less about conveying an image of power.” From Boehner’s perspective, political power corrupts. It was a lesson he learned from seeing colleagues transform into arrogant despots when they became committee chairs.
This disdain for power, odd for someone who served in the third highest post in American government, may explain some of the more damaging errors Boehner made as Speaker. For instance, early in his speakership Boehner decided to eliminate earmarks in spending bills in the name of reducing corruption. This proved costly, as it robbed him of a valuable means of influencing his fellow partisans to stay loyal on difficult votes.
Boehner’s dislike of political power may also explain key moments when he mistakenly let other lawmakers overrule his own preferences. Immigration reform legislation failed to pass the House, he writes, because the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), didn’t want it to. “Nothing would get him to move an inch toward compromise,” he laments. In 2012 he let the Republican Steering Committee remove four disloyal Republicans from their committees despite thinking it was a bad idea. And it was: those four Republicans voted against him in the upcoming election for Speaker, which he only narrowly won.
This hands-off approach to governing is somewhat reminiscent of how Speakers of the past like Sam Rayburn governed the House, deferring to committee chairs and following a more institutionalist model of leadership. But even Rayburn understood the importance of amassing influence, exercising it, and cultivating an reputation for power, which helped him serve longer as Speaker than anyone else in history.
Boehner most clearly demonstrated his lack of understanding of power – and how the perception of power creates more power – when he resigned suddenly from Congress in October 2015. Boehner credits the visit of Pope Francis with his decision to resign early, but he also did soon after key members of the House Freedom Caucus threatened to vote him out. The threat was empty – Boehner had the votes to remain Speaker – but the timing of Boehner’s departure fostered the impression that the Freedom Caucus had brought him down. It burnished the Caucus' influence over the House Republican Party that has continued to this day.
Whether or not Boehner’s speakership inadvertently helped the “knuckleheads” he so frequently disparages, his memoir should be read as a testament to the difficulties of being a Rayburn Speaker in a Gingrich House. It also underscores the dangers of treating political power in Congress as something to be avoided rather than nurtured.