History Will Be Kind to John Boehner

The speaker was right to reopen the government without tea party votes.

By SHARE
House Speaker John Boehner arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the day on Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

In a city obsessed with ranking winners and losers ahead of evaluating policy, it's an easy story line. Speaker John Boehner, it has been nearly universally determined, has been weakened, devastated even, by his 11th-hour decision to buck the tea party caucus and allow legislation onto the floor that averted a default and fiscal disaster. The move meant that Boehner had to break – again – the so-called "Hastert Rule," which dictates (according to the previous GOP speaker) that no legislation be given a floor vote unless it has majority-of-the-majority support.

But as rough a few weeks (and couple of years, actually) that Boehner has had, history may well evaluate his behavior much more kindly. History, after all, doesn't care about who won a schoolyard fight, but rather who chose the more important goal no matter what it means to one's short-term popularity. Maintaining the integrity of the United States in dealing with its debts is far more important than appeasing a small faction of the GOP caucus, and indeed, even more important than keeping the speakership. And those worries are way overblown anyway; the tea party doesn't have a viable candidate to challenge Boehner. It has a lot of passion and bluster, but not enough establishment experience to win the ultimate establishment fight of a vote for speaker.

Politics is not just about ideology or strategy. Much of the makeup of members – especially the veteran members – is driven by the experiences they had before they came to elected office. The key information about John Boehner is that he is one of 12 children. By definition, Boehner learned at an early age that you can't always have what you want, and most of the time, you have to share.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

The second salient fact about Boehner's background is that he put himself through college, an endeavor that took him seven years, since he needed to work to pay for his education. The lesson there is that life is not fair; life is not always easy, and sometimes, you have to work harder than other people to achieve your goals.

Boehner brought those experiences to his handling of the recent battle over the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling. The tea party caucus is not to be ignored; after all, its victories in 2010 are part of why the GOP won the majority and in turn elected Boehner speaker. Boehner needed to let the tea partiers have a voice.

Arguably, he let the whole affair drag on much longer than he should have. While the U.S. avoided the unprecedented crisis of a default on its debt, we did have a 16-day government shutdown that took $24 billion out of the economy and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and millions of citizens.

But when a worst-case scenario was looming, Boehner ultimately did the right thing and allowed the CR and the increase in the debt ceiling to come up for a vote by the full House. It passed because not a single Democrat voted no. That doesn't make Boehner a traitor to his party. It makes him a servant to his country. He is, after all, the speaker of the whole House – not just the Republican caucus.

Boehner had a choice. He could let the country go into a dangerous default in the interests of appeasing a minority of the House, or he could go down in history as the speaker who put his ego aside for the greater good. That's what you learn when you're one of a dozen children. And while the daily headlines may not be flattering, the history books will be more so.

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