Menu Close

Boehner resigns: scholars see trouble ahead for GOP

Boehner quits on Friday, September 25. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) called it quits Friday. He will leave his position – and his seat – at the end of October. Three scholars of American politics tell us what forced Boehner out and predict how his abrupt departure will resonate in the US Congress.

The Tea Party strikes again

Christopher Parker, University of Washington

For some, Speaker John Boehner’s resignation comes as a surprise. Why voluntarily resign from the third most influential position in American politics?

It’s quite simple: after four years of trying and failing, the speaker grew weary of trying to persuade some members of his caucus to compromise. On several occasions, the Tea Party faction of the GOP has refused to even attempt finding common ground with Democrats. From debt ceiling fights to government shutdowns (and threatened shutdowns), to comprehensive immigration reform, and now to Planned Parenthood, the speaker, an establishment conservative, has tried to persuade these reactionary conservatives to do the right thing.

Why did he have such a tough time with the reactionary wing of the GOP conference? As I have illustrated in my book on reactionary politics in the US, the Tea Party faction represents constituents fraught with fear and anxiety that their country is being “stolen” from them; it’s changing too fast. For these people, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out many years ago, compromise is commensurate with capitulation to evil.

The battle between establishment and reactionary conservatives will continue for the foreseeable future. However, the reactionary faction won’t have John A Boehner to kick around any longer.

Christopher Sebastian Parker is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. His book Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America, explores the beliefs, attitudes, and behavior of the Tea Party. He is working on a second book about the Tea Party.

In the age of Trump, Boehner’s days were numbered

Anthony Gaughan, Drake University

By Tea Party standards, Boehner was too ready to compromise. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

By any reasonable measure, John Boehner is one of the most conservative speakers in the history of the House of Representatives. When Boehner became house speaker in 2010, the American Conservative Union gave his congressional voting record a career score of 94, an almost perfect rating.

But the extreme and unbending conservatives who now dominate the Republican Party never liked Boehner. Notwithstanding his conservative voting record, the house speaker lacked the uncompromising zealotry and irresponsible rhetoric that the conservative Tea Party faction demands from Republican leaders. Boehner wanted to cut deals with the White House, while the Tea Party wanted to shut down the entire government.

One need look no further than the Republican presidential race to understand Boehner’s lack of appeal to extreme conservatives. In the latest GOP polls, Donald Trump and Ben Carson stand in first and second place, respectively. Trump and Carson are exactly the kind of leaders that Tea Party conservatives love: they lack government experience, they have a poor grasp of the issues, they take absurdly extreme policy positions and they make crudely offensive and deeply divisive statements on a routine basis. In the age of Trump and Carson, Boehner’s days were numbered.

There will be much talk in the days ahead of the brewing civil war between the conservative and establishment factions in the Republican Party. But in many ways, the so-called “civil war” within the Republican Party gives the establishment far too much credit. Establishment candidates have largely cowered before the Tea Party onslaught.

Indeed, just yesterday, Jeb Bush – the ultimate establishment Republican – declared that he wouldn’t give “free stuff” to African Americans to win their votes. Bush’s disgraceful racial demagoguery sounds a lot more like Donald Trump than Abraham Lincoln. It demonstrates the extent to which Tea Party toxicity has spread beyond the conservative base to poison the establishment itself.

One thing is certain: John Boehner won’t be the last victim the Tea Party claims. The extremists who dominate the Republican Party today won’t be happy until they have driven the entire party off a cliff.

Anthony Gaughan is an Associate Professor of Law at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. His academic specialties include civil procedure, evidence, election law, national security law, and political and constitutional history. He is a former United States Navy officer and an Iraq War veteran. He is the author of The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States versus Lee, 1861-1883.


Jeanne Zaino, Iona College/NYU

At the press conference announcing his resignation, a reporter told Boehner that he “seemed very relieved.” To which the speaker replied, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ from ‘Song of the South.’

The song the speaker hummed is part of the opening credits for “The Wonderful World of Disney.” The music was also originally included in the animated film “Song of the South.” One has to wonder whether the speaker planned this seemingly “spontaneous” moment or not?

Whistling a “Song of the South” on your way out the door hardly seems accidental. It seems to portend that the GOP is fractured to a degree that it has now become ungovernable: fractured between not just the traditional North and South divide, but urban and suburban, wealthy and poor, white and nonwhite, and myriad other ways that make it almost impossible for our representatives to work together to govern effectively.

This may be why Representative Paul Ryan has said he’s not interested in Boehner’s job. Apparently Ryan – like so many others – sees serving as speaker as an impossible task.

If this were just about Boehner and the House, that would be one thing, but it isn’t. This is about the Republican Party as a whole. Very much like the Democratic Party of the 1970s and 1980s, the GOP is divided. We have seen this play out not just in Congress but on the campaign trail where the battle between the “establishment” and “outsiders,” the “hawks” and “isolationists,” the “libertarians” and more “traditional republicans” rages on.

After failing to capture the presidency in 2012, the GOP made a concerted effort to study and understand what went wrong. Their findings were captured in the “Growth and Opportunity” report. Among other things they concluded that they “need to resolve and downplay internal divisions,” many of which had forced Mitt Romney too far to the right to win the general election.

Those who care about the health of the GOP may want to downplay internal divisions, but the announcement by Speaker Boehner today is just another in a long line of reminders that the chasm is deep and, at least in the short term, intractable. We are likely to see a battle for leadership which we haven’t seen for some time. While Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to become the new speaker, we shouldn’t forget that is only because his predecessor, Eric Cantor, was unexpectedly ousted by the unknown Dave Brat in the 2014 primary.

If Cantor’s ouster wasn’t enough, in the current race for the 2016 GOP nominee Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson sit on top of the polls. The fact that these three, none of whom has held elected office, are in the lead is another in a long line of indications that the chasm in the Republican Party is real and consequential. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Jeanne Zaino’s work has been published in journals such as Campaigns and Elections, Journal of Politics, Journal of Political Science Education and the Chronicles of Higher Education. Her most recent books are Adventures in Social Research: Data Analysis Using SPSS (Sage) and Core Concepts in American Government (Prentice Hall).

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 148,500 academics and researchers from 4,413 institutions.

Register now