Boehner’s departure is a victory for conservatives, but not a big one

House Speaker John Boehner appears on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. Chris Usher | CBS News via Reuters

House Speaker John Boehner appears on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. Chris Usher | CBS News via Reuters

Was John Boehner a nice guy? Yes.

Was John Boehner a solid conservative? For the most part, on issues, sure.

Was John Boehner an effective, good Speaker of the House? No, he wasn’t, and it was time for a change.

It was time for a change because Boehner had no real control over his own members. It was time for a change because there didn’t seem to be any governing philosophy behind what the House Republicans were doing. It was time for a change because despite being conservative himself and believing in conservative issues, he was an insufficient advocate and leader for the conservative cause.

So, all of that said, I think Boehner’s decision to step aside and leave another person to hold the speaker’s gavel was a wise one, and probably good for the party.

This is what conservatives have wanted for at least a couple years now, particularly in the last nine months or so. Boehner came to represent the collaborator, establishment wing of the party, too quick to give in, too shy of being combative, too interested in compromising, and too interested in working with Democrats. Worse, he had a heavy-handed leadership style, pushing out lawmakers who defied his wishes and marginalizing rabble-rousing conservatives.

Funny thing about him leaving, though, is that his likely replacement, Kevin McCarthy of California, could potentially be everything the conservatives hated about Boehner and more.

McCarthy is personally (much) more moderate than Boehner was. He is also more mild-mannered. And while he certainly isn’t as much of a career politician as Boehner was, he has been around a long time now, and he is firmly in the establishment wing.

In other words, in a time when the the House caucus and rank-and-file Republicans want a deep conservative who fights aggressively and is an outsider to the system, they are almost certainly going to get the exact opposite.

In the end, I feel bad for basically anyone who is unlucky enough to become speaker of the House.

No matter who takes the gavel, that person is essentially set up to fail, no matter his or her ideology, or how much of an anti-establishment fighter he or she is. The reincarnated ghost of Ronald Reagan could be elected speaker, and his results would not be all that different from Boehner’s.

Why? Mostly because, contrary to what so many Republican voters seem to think, the GOP does not have the ability to and has not earned the right to pass its policy proposals into law.

In 2010 and 2014 especially, Republicans gave themselves whopping majorities in the House and now also the Senate. That gives them the power and right to stop any proposals put forth by Barack Obama and the Democrats. It does not give them the power to enact their own proposals because they do not control the White House.

There is a belief in conservative circles today that pushing the envelope and forcing the president to veto bills or threatening to shut down the government over this issue or that issue will either a) lead to an inspirational grassroots movement forcing the White House to capitulate or b) bully Obama into capitulating.

That could be true, but the chances of it are highly unlikely.

When the Democrats took control of Congress from the Republicans in 2006 and Speaker Nancy Pelosi captured the gavel, their activist base was desperate to do a number of things, including end the Iraq War. With a Republican president in the White House, this was impossible.

Sure, maybe they could have shut down the government over it, and sure, maybe the president might have blinked, but there is no real precedent for that happening. Having one party in control of the White House and another in control of Congress basically means they cancel each other out.

Should Speaker Boehner and Republican leadership have grown a backbone and attacked certain issues hard? Absolutely. Being firm, aggressive and unified would have produced better results.

But at the end of the day, stopping an agenda isn’t what the base wants. It wants to enact its own. To do that, you need a president you can work with. So while gaining Boehner’s scalp is a win, it is almost a pyrrhic victory, as his replacement will almost certainly be worse, and he is in a no-win situation in which he won’t be able to make his base happy.

That’s why the election you should care about the most is the 2016 presidential election, not who ends up becoming the Speaker of the House.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.