Speaking at Stanford University, former House Speaker John Boehner went the full Bulworth.
"You can call me boner, beaner, jackass, happy to answer to almost anything," he said. Mostly, though, the name-calling was directed outward.
Boehner called Ted Cruz "Lucifer in the flesh," and said, "I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life." He admitted he would vote for Donald Trump, if it came to it, but not for Cruz.
He repeatedly called the House Freedom Caucus — the loose group of anti-establishment conservatives who are thought to have forced him out of the speakership — "knuckleheads" and "goofballs."
"I love all these knuckleheads talking about the party of Reagan," Boehner continued. "He would be the most moderate Republican elected today."
It's easy to laugh this off. After all, didn't everyone kind of believe this is what Boehner would say after a couple of glasses of Merlot?
But don't laugh it off. John Boehner was the Speaker of the House as recently as a single year ago. He is, himself, a conservative Republican. And he is saying, flatly, that the Republican Party has been captured by morons, goofballs, and "Lucifer." He is saying that the party has moved so far to the right that Ronald Reagan wouldn't recognize it.
Boehner is validating one of the most persistent and controversial critiques of the modern Republican Party. And he has the authority to do so.
Has the Republican Party become "an insurgent outlier"?
In 2012, the congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein wrote a column for the Washington Post diagnosing what they saw to be the central problem in modern American politics.
"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics," they wrote. "It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
"When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges."
The op-ed hit like a bomb. Mann and Ornstein were institutionalists with wide respect in both parties — Ornstein, in fact, worked (and still works) for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. For them to call out one party as "the core of the problem" in American governance was to violate all the rules of polite Washington society. Their diagnosis was controversial at the time, to put it lightly.
For the most part, Republicans dismissed the critique as motivated by the authors' personal liberalism. "The implicit premise is that Republicans are radical and partisan because they are conservative, and we’d be much better off if we returned to the days when Republicans were content to go in the direction of progressive liberalism, albeit a little bit more slowly," wrote Joseph Postell in the National Review.
The truth, he continued, is that "the authors provide very little argument that the Republicans have crossed an ideological Rubicon in any substantive way. There are a few quotes from Republican dissenters Chuck Hagel and Mike Lofgren, but that is all they offer."
In other words, for a critique like this to really have bite, it would need to come from a true, dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Someone whose loyalty to the party couldn't be questioned. Someone who clearly wanted Republicans to succeed and prosper.
Someone like John Boehner.
Boehner was an ideological conservative. The problem is he wasn't a procedural extremist.
In 2006, when House Republicans needed a leader after the fall of Tom DeLay, they turned to John Boehner. They kept him as their leader after the 2006 election, and after the 2008 election. They voted him speaker of the house after the 2010 election, and then again after the 2012 and 2014 elections.
And there was reason for that. By the time Boehner left office, he was, by definition, the establishment — you can't be third in line for the presidency and still be seen as a political outsider. But he was also a conservative. He had been one of Newt Gingrich's deputies amidst the 1994 Republican takeover, and he routinely racked up high marks from rightwing watchdogs like the American Conservative Union that tracked whether members of Congress voted in a routinely conservative fashion.
Boehner's most vicious fights with his party's right flank weren't ideological. Like them, he wanted to repeal Obamacare, cut taxes, ban abortion, and voucherize Medicare. The fights, rather, were tactical. He recognized that, without the presidency, Republicans didn't have the power to achieve those goals, and trying to force Obama's hand by shutting down the government or breaching the debt ceiling was likely to backfire. If Republicans were going to get anything done, they would need to compromise with Democrats — and it was that belief, more than any other, that offended Boehner's critics.
This is the core of Mann and Ornstein's critique, too. They were not simply arguing that the Republican Party has become more conservative, though it clearly has. They were arguing that it had become tactically extreme in ways that were grinding the normal workings of government to a halt. "Rank-and-file GOP voters endorse the strategy that the party’s elites have adopted," they wrote, "eschewing compromise to solve problems and insisting on principle, even if it leads to gridlock."
They were dismissed at the time. But now Boehner is saying the same thing. And he has more than enough credibility on this point.
Boehner was the Republican most responsible for managing the normal workings of the government. And he reserves his real venom for those who were contemptuous of those duties. Ted Cruz, specifically, is widely blamed for forcing the 2013 government shutdown — an absurd stratagem that didn't lead to the defunding of Obamacare, as Cruz had hoped, but did lead to the Republican Party registering its lowest poll numbers in history.
Boehner bailed. The problem remained.
John Boehner abruptly resigned the speakership in 2015. And so it's tempting to dismiss his testimony as sour grapes.
Tempting, but wrong.
The dysfunction that destroyed Boehner remains, and the politicians who profit from that dysfunction have only seen their standing rise. Cruz, for instance, is the closest thing the Republican establishment now has to a candidate who can stop Donald Trump (though it's doubtful that he actually can stop Donald Trump).
Boehner's successor, Paul Ryan, is both the party's great hope for the future and the leader most likely to be undone by the GOP's tactical extremism and wishful thinking. As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote:
Ryan will be caught between a GOP whose impulse is to react to the Trump fiasco by doubling-down on purism and the cold, hard legislative math that forces him to cut deals with Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
The upshot is that Ryan is going to end up finding himself RINOed, like John Boehner before him. Denounced as a Republican In Name Only who came to DC to betray conservatives. If that results in a font of boring, centrist, bipartisan legislation, Ryan may get the privilege of being considered an elder statesman by Beltway graybeard types. If it results in Boehner-style crises, he'll simply be universally reviled. But either way, he'll be a traitor to his base and utterly unsuited for future presidential nominations.
Zoom out, and here is the condition of the modern Republican Party. Despite significant down-ballot strength, it has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and it looks likely to lose this one, too. The party has completely lost control of its own nominating process, and its choice now is to either elect Donald Trump, a candidate who isn't really a Republican and might be a historic disaster for the party, or risk a schism by trying to rip the nomination away from Trump amidst a contested convention. Meanwhile, John Boehner, the most powerful Republican elected official from 2008 to 2015, resigned in frustration last year and is now saying his party has been captured by idiots and zealots.
This is not a healthy political party.