The stunning resignation of Speaker John Boehner speaks volumes about the Republican disarray in the House of Representatives, which has brought it to new lows in the esteem of the American public and made the chamber virtually ungovernable.
Ever since his colleagues elevated him to the speakership in 2011, Mr. Boehner has sought, usually in vain, to bridge the deep differences between the practical members of his caucus who believe in responsible governance and an extremist faction that subscribes to the “my way or the highway” approach.
In 2013, to appease the kamikaze faction, he went along with an effort to shut down the government over a fight involving funding for Obamacare, even though he knew that it would fail — which it did. But that earned him no points with the hardliners. They openly grumbled about his leadership, and neither his patience, nor the shutdown debacle, nor plummeting popularity in public-opinion surveys could sway the extremist faction.
Indeed, the latest chapter of this wearisome melodrama involves a threat by ultra-conservative members to shut down the government — yes, again! — by next Friday over what once would have been regarded as a routine legislative spat about funding Planned Parenthood.
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Mr. Boehner’s oft-stated resolve to keep the government open this time, despite the wishes of the diehards, apparently prompted his decision to not only quit the thankless task of leading the House, but to resign from Congress altogether. In an emotional resignation speech, Mr. Boehner made it clear that he’d had enough of the nonstop conservative rebellion and was stepping aside to avoid a prolonged leadership fight that would do irreparable harm to the House, where he has served since 1991.
Ironically, the House’s tea-party faction thus ended the career of someone who rose to prominence as a conservative hawk, an architect of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in the mid-1990s that put the House under Republican leadership for the first time in a generation. The House has traveled a long way since then. Mostly downhill.
The inspiring presence of Pope Francis in Congress Thursday clearly put matters in perspective for Mr. Boehner. He later said that a private moment with the pontiff touched him deeply.
For one day, the pope brought a measure of unity to Washington, with everyone on their best behavior as they listened respectfully to his pleas to work for a better world.
For Mr. Boehner, a devout Catholic who had dreamed for years of bringing a pope to Capitol Hill, Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress was the culmination of a lifetime in politics. Seated behind the pontiff, he wept openly.
The elevated moment contrasted starkly with the spitefulness of contemporary politics in the nation’s capital. For Mr. Boehner, this may have seemed the right time to let someone else try to herd an unruly caucus.
Apparently, that someone may be Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 Republican in the House, although others may also run. Whoever wins will face the challenge of leading a party of warring factions, torn between moderates in the establishment wing and ultra-conservatives who claim a “grass roots” following.
A party torn by this sort of infighting and disorder cannot govern. John Boehner could see the damage it was causing to his party, but he couldn’t stop it.
The takeaway from Mr. Boehner’s resignation is that extreme partisanship is a losing game, and that compromise is essential to effective government. If the next speaker fails to realize this, he may find, like his predecessor, that leadership is not worth having if it means destroying his party and hurting his country.