Is the Party Over?

| October 5, 2015

As John Boehner exits stage right, does he leave behind a fracturing party or one completely broken?


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor

Fulfilling his longtime goal of receiving the pope for an official visit to the U.S. Capitol and having the bishop of Rome address a joint session of Congress, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, a devout Catholic, reflected on the historic visit and noted, “I’ve done everything I can.” Boehner announced at a press conference his intention to resign from Congress, and the powerful House speakership, by the end of October. That’s the official story, anyway.

I don’t doubt Rep. Boehner’s piety, his long held desire to meet the Catholic Church’s pontiff, and the feeling of completeness after receiving the spiritual leader to one-seventh of the world’s people. But there’s another side to the story that is the resignation of the House speaker.

John Boehner leaves behind a deeply fractured congressional party, specifically, and national party, generally. The Ohio congressman has long been regarded as an “establishment Republican,” somewhat apart from the southern evangelical wing and the deeply conservative, insurgent Tea Party arm of the contemporary Republican Party; in short, Boehner must’ve increasingly felt as though he was a “man without a country.”

It suffices to say, as the old adage goes, it’s lonely at the top. And likely Boehner could no longer stomach the constant infighting. With the departure of Boehner as speaker of the House and leader of the House Republican conference, there is a deeper question to be had: what will be the character of House Republicans, the House majority party, without a Boehner-like figure at the helm?

Following the power struggle which will naturally ensue following the speaker’s announced departure, which wing of the party will emerge as victorious and gain control of the reins to arguably the most powerful position in the American Congress?

In sum, there’s a real concern that we’re on the cusp of a great battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Boehner was merely a victim of this struggle.

Assuming Boehner’s lieutenant, the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, cannot consolidate the requisite support in the conference needed to secure the speakership, it’s feasible a dark horse candidate, perhaps much more conservative than Boehner, will emerge from the fray.

Sure, a more conservative speaker would bode well with the insurgent Tea Party cadre which has so often fought with Boehner, tooth and nail, over policy and the prospect of gridlock. But would a Tea Party-endorsed speaker actually lead to any substantive improvement in policy outcomes? Remember, the central quality of divided government is that the other party holds one or several veto points in the policy adoption process. It seems unlikely that a new speaker further apart, ideologically, from a Democratic president can ensure that a robust legislative agenda will materialize.

While President Obama has less than two years remaining in his tenure, how would infighting between congressional Republicans hamper GOP efforts in taking back the White House in 2016? Can a fractured party recover to coalesce around a nominee? With more questions than answers, what’s clear is that the Republican Party is having a battle for both its future and its soul.

The tensions in the House of Representatives are a microcosm of the political field in the aggregate. John Boehner was yet another victim to the battle over the Republican Party’s future. If the Boehner’s of the party—moderate, establishment Republicans—feel increasingly alienated by an increasingly reactionary, indeed doctrinaire, subset, it seems unlikely the Republican Party can muster the electoral and elite support required to exact a far-reaching, cogent legislative agenda.

The resounding conclusion of John Boehner’s certain departure from the House is that the party of Boehner, the party of the son of a working class Ohio barkeeper, is over. A party who expels moderates from leadership and continues headlong toward the goal of ideological purity, as some in the party see it, is one which is working its way to minority status.

The party of Boehner is over in an ideological sense, and if trends continue, it will be over in an electoral sense also.

Undoubtedly, this prospect should make Republican officials very, very nervous.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is an opinion contributor for Valdosta Today and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Florida. His scholarly interests include legislative politics, southern politics, and research methods in the social sciences. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. Nick’s research on southern politics and state legislative budgeting has been published in refereed journals. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in religious studies from Valdosta State University. Nick can be contacted via e-mail at Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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