There’s a great irony to John Boehner’s resignation — once upon a time, he was involved in an attempt to oust a speaker himself. The official bio on the speaker’s website puts it this way: he was, back in the day, “a reformer who took on the establishment.”
But when one becomes speaker, one becomes, by definition, part of the establishment. And these days, the conservative base just doesn’t like the establishment.
Here’s another irony: Boehner has become more conservative over the last 25 years — and the Ohio Republican remains more conservative than the average GOP congressman. But he hasn’t kept pace with the hard-liners, and that’s important in this era of record polarization.
Those are two big reasons Boehner’s job as speaker was such a struggle. Let’s examine:
1. Voters (Republicans especially) really don’t trust Washington
Americans have grown increasingly distrustful of government in the last few decades, and the feeling is particularly strong among Republicans, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
And that distrust has increasingly been reflected in election results, with voters willing to knock out party stalwarts in favor of outsider newcomers (a lesson Eric Cantor learned last year). In a recent paper explaining Boehner’s leadership troubles, UCLA Political Science Professor Barbara Sinclair wrote that that distrust in Washington, widespread among party activists, showed up in the newer members of Congress.
Because election victories were often attributed to the tea party and other activist groups, she wrote, “it did not enhance Boehner’s reputation; members did not consider him a political genius. Rather, Boehner was seen as a pragmatic politician and part of the Washington establishment, representative of everything that GOP activists distrusted and disliked.”
Long story short, public distrust of government translated into elected officials distrusting establishment figures, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. Outsiders distrusted the long-time leaders, and those leaders suffered for it.
“They’re elected to represent your views. … And a lot of Republicans just did not feel [lawmakers] were making the progress that they should,” O’Connell said. “Boehner was the symbol of that inaction.”
2. The most polarized Congress in more than a century
In a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with GOP voters’ growing distrust, Congress grew increasingly polarized over the years.
If you look at that chart of government trust again, you might notice that people are way more likely to trust the government when their guy is in the White House. The GOP trusted Washington much more when George W. Bush was president, for example. But they deeply distrust Democrat leaders, and that distrust has helped to cement and even deepen polarization.
“When you see your adversaries — Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nanc Pelosi, etc. — as the devil, those on the extreme end of your party start looking pretty good to voters, especially primary voters, who are more committed,” writes Marc Hetherington, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, in an email to NPR “These characters run on the notion that they won’t give the other side an inch.”
And that rejection of compromise makes Boehner’s job even harder, Hetherington adds, as Boehner had a reputation of being a dealmaker.
Interestingly, it’s not that the rest of the party was far to Boehner’s right. To the contrary, Boehner was still slightly more conservative than the rest of his party when he became speaker, according to DW-NOMINATE first dimension scores (a common measure of lawmakers’ ideology — the higher the score, the more conservative, as shown in the chart).
But during his time in Congress, as the party quickly swung right, Boehner steadily found himself closer to the middle of the party, putting more Republicans further to the right than him. (It wasn’t just Republicans, either — Democrats moved further to the left.)
That made it harder to get even the most basic things done, like keeping the government from shutting down or preventing the nation from hitting the debt ceiling. Trying to corral an increasingly extreme party has been one of Boehner’s biggest — if not the biggest — challenges as speaker.