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John Boehner: A Rayburn speaker in a Gingrich House

Boehner would have had more success if he were tougher and smarter in handling Republican dissidents.

House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation during a press conference on Capitol Hill September 25, 2015.
House Speaker John Boehner announces his resignation during a press conference on Capitol Hill September 25, 2015.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Why did John Boehner decide to resign his speakership? Most accounts have pointed the finger at his party in the House. Divided over tactics if not over policy goals, the House Republican Conference contains a core group of dissenters that were willing to openly challenge Boehner's authority in ways that, until recently, were considered apostasy in Congress. It seems hard to imagine that anyone could survive as leader of a party as fractured as Boehner's.

But the relationship between a party and its leaders is not unidirectional. And as challenging as it may be to govern the House GOP right now, it's also worth considering what role Boehner may have played in his own political demise. 

In his 1961 article "Political Leadership and the Problem of Charismatic Power," political theorist Carl Friedrich wrote about the origins and use of power by political leaders. Power, he argued, is both something a leader possesses and a result of her relationship with her followers. Though leaders in democratic institutions depend mostly on relationships for their power — since the followers get to choose their leaders — power is also something they possess and exercise independently. These two sources of power, which Friedrich termed consent and coercion, are not mutually exclusive.

The factions within the House Republican Party have been well-documented, as has the open opposition to Boehner's speakership expressed by some members of the party, which has made it hard for Boehner to exercise power. There have been hints, however, that Boehner's choice of when and how to exercise power and authority may have encouraged intraparty rebellion. And it may not fit well with how Congress has been since at least the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich was speaker: ideological, uncompromising, highly partisan, and caught up in the never-ending news cycle.

For instance, in mid-2013 reporter Paul Kane noted that neither Boehner nor his fellow leaders (then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor and then-Whip Kevin McCarthy) preferred to push aggressively for votes. "To veteran Republicans and former lawmakers," he wrote, "the three were too tolerant of the younger generation from the outset." In another article from 2013, Noah Bierman wrote that Boehner's critics felt more "pity" than anger toward the speaker. Leaders who are pitied are not likely to have the personal authority necessary to exercise power.

When rebels have been sanctioned, the punishments have often been halfhearted and poorly executed. Four Republicans were kicked off committees after the 2012 elections and just a few weeks before the next Congress met to choose its speaker; three of them then refused to cast ballots for Boehner, helping make the vote closer than it might have been. Earlier this year Rep. Mark Meadows was removed as a subcommittee chair, a move that was rescinded a week later, emboldening GOP conservatives. Meadows subsequently introduced a resolution to declare the speakership vacant, generating months of media speculation about Boehner's future.

Boehner's more relaxed, conciliatory style of leadership works well in a legislature where cross-party voting is acceptable, disagreements aren't taken personally, legislative activity is often hidden from the public, and backroom deals are a part of governing. Such was the House of Representatives of the mid-20th century, when the legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas served as speaker. Majority Democrats under Rayburn were deeply divided between Southern conservatives and Northern liberals, but Rayburn managed to make the House work through a combination of building cross-party coalitions and, when possible, steering clear of divisive issues (like civil rights) altogether.  Open punishments for dissent were rare.

Boehner's difficult tenure as speaker should thus serve as a cautionary tale for his successor. Congressional parties cannot be commanded, and there will always be lawmakers who refuse to go along with their leaders. But at a minimum, for Congress to work well its leaders must develop and protect their personal reservoir of power and use it in a manner that best fits the party and chamber they are trying to lead.  To do so will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next speaker of the House.

Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. His book Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives was published in January by Yale University Press.