After his emotion-packed encounter with Pope Francis, House Speaker John Boehner appears to be a man who has achieved an inner peace — but his resulting decision to step down could send disruptive ripples through our politics for some time to come.
Watching Boehner from afar Thursday, it was clear that he was wrought up by the Pope’s visit to the House of Representatives. A devout Catholic who prays every morning, Boehner has been trying for more than two decades to bring a Pope to the institution he reveres. Not only did Boehner finally bring the two together — a crowning moment — but as he has told many since, the Pope’s personal request to Boehner to pray for him was immensely moving.
At peace with himself and with his spirituality, Boehner was ready to leave the turmoil, intrigue and roiling anger he has faced from within his own party since his election as speaker five years ago. And so he did — quickly and with characteristic grace and humility. John Boehner won’t go down as one of the great speakers — he was no Sam Rayburn — but he should be remembered as one of the finest human beings there.
So, what comes next? What repercussions are we likely to see? Here are some preliminary takes:
— Perhaps Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Boehner’s likely successor in the speakership, can build some early bridges across GOP factions but they are not likely to last. To lead is to choose, and eventually McCarthy will have to make decisions that will deepen the alienation of one faction or another.
— Most likely, hard-right Republicans — having pressured Boehner toward the exits — will now look for new victories in Washington and in the presidential race. Just look at the way Sens. Ted Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Marco Rubio danced on Boehner’s grave. A shutdown of the federal government over Planned Parenthood in coming months is one of many scenarios one can imagine.
— But this is also a moment that will give heart to Democrats. The more Republicans seem hostage to the far right, the better chance Democrats have of keeping the White House next year and perhaps challenging control of the Senate. Hillary Clinton will correctly see Boehner’s downfall as an opening to recharge her own campaign — she can aim to be seen as a steadying force closer to the middle.
— Oddly enough, Boehner’s resignation could also be an opening for Donald Trump. His candidacy plays well among Americans disgusted with Washington politics. But instead of bringing brashness and braggadocio, Trump — if he is smart — could surprise everyone and step forward as the adult in the room, serving as the uniting force among Republicans..
Politics in America has always been a raucous affair. Just look at accounts of infighting during Washington’s presidency or reread H.L. Mencken. But Americans also appreciate that governing is a serious business. The visit of Pope Francis has reminded us of how serious the needs of the world are — and as he did with John Boehner, has also reminded us of the importance of seeking peace and tranquility.
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