Last weekend, Politico's Jake Sherman interviewed John Boehner. Boehner was, at that moment, facing a possible coup from House conservatives and a possible government shutdown over Planned Parenthood, and he was doing it all while on a relentless fundraising trip through the Pacific Northwest.
Boehner's job was a nightmare. And one of Boehner's particular charms was that he always seemed to know it. He didn't even pretend he was having fun. Asked about the rigors of his role, Boehner's response to Sherman was typically piquant. "Garbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage," he replied.
He then spent the rest of the interview defending his record from conservative activists. "I don't think they understand I'm as conservative as they are," he complained. "When I voted regularly, I had the eighth most conservative voting record in Congress. And the idea that I'm the establishment, that I'm some RINO, is just laughable. It really is."
John Boehner is giving up his House seat at the end of October. He is, by all accounts, tired of being the House's garbageman — tired of the coups against him, tired of threats to shut down the government, tired of getting nothing done, tired of being blamed for nothing getting done.
But garbagemen are important. And Boehner was a damn good garbageman at a time when House Republicans produced a whole lot of garbage.
Boehner did not get a storybook speakership. He took the reins of the House as the Republican Party was splitting itself apart. He was routinely humiliated on the floor by Tea Party insurrections. He was forced to accept that his members desperately wanted to see what would happen if they almost let the US default on its debt, and then if they shut the government down. He has guided little legislation of note to passage, and while there's been broad acceptance of his leadership, there's been little enthusiasm for it. It is hard to imagine his page in the history books looks, at this juncture, like it will read the way he hoped.
But there's another way of looking at Boehner's speakership. He was handed an unfolding disaster, and he made it — through grueling, humiliating work — into something approximating a success.
Yes, he took the reins of the House as the Republican Party was splitting itself apart — but he managed to hold them together.
Yes, his members brought the United States damn close to defaulting on its debt — but by using their lunacy as leverage, he extracted trillions in spending cuts from the Obama administration.
No, Boehner hasn't shepherded much legislation of note, but he stopped Obama's legislative agenda cold.
No, Boehner wasn't able to stop his members from shutting down the government, but the shutdown he permitted came right after an election, leaving the GOP more than enough time to recover and go on to win the next election.
Boehner was a business-friendly, establishment Republican leading the House in a Tea Party moment — and somehow, he made it work. So while there was little enthusiasm for his leadership, in a constituency as fractious as the modern Republican Party, acceptance isn't nothing. Look at poor Eric Cantor for proof of that.
The quiet speaker
The speaker of the House is not a particularly powerful position. It isn't even as powerful a position as it was a decade ago, thanks to the end of earmarks.
Boehner's approach to suasion was, consequently, frustrating. He would walk his members to the brink of disaster in order to show them what would happen if they truly called down the storm. He would watch must-pass legislation he favored fail on the floor, and strategies he favored die in conference, and he would listen and try again, because he needed the members who wanted a radical speaker to feel that his speakership wasn't closed to them, and that they could rack up wins amidst it.
Boehner frequently looked weak. He frequently lost battles. He routinely cried. When his plan to avert the fiscal cliff failed, he stood before his conference and recited the Serenity Prayer: "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..."
But sometimes, weakness is a strategy. Sometimes, you need to give your critics a win in order to keep them from becoming your enemies. LBJ may have had The Treatment, but Boehner is a master of the rope-a-dope.
There have been many, in recent years, who wished for a stronger speaker, a speaker who sought compromise more aggressively and did more to marginalize House conservatives. Perhaps that speaker would have made the past few years more productive. Or perhaps he would've been broken by conservative dissatisfaction and replaced with a more authentic Tea Partier.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have often wished that they had been led by one of their own — someone willing to truly maximize his leverage, someone who wasn't, in his heart, so afraid of defaulting on the debt and defunding the government and launching impeachment proceedings. That would have been a disaster for the country, but it would have been a particular disaster for conservatism, which would have been blamed for the consequences.
Boehner has managed to steer his conference between these extremes, and the result is that today, Obama is unpopular, his legislative agenda is dead, and Republicans have the largest House majority since the Truman presidency and a real chance to win in 2016.
John Boehner hasn't always been the speaker Republicans wanted. But he was the speaker they needed. And now he's resigning. House Republicans might find that a garbageman as good as Boehner is hard to find.