John Boehner walked away from the podium at the front of the House after addressing it for the last time as speaker, turned away from the cameras and more than 400 applauding colleagues, puffed out his cheeks and let out a big sigh.
It was a quiet moment for a man who had just told America that being speaker is not a job a politician can do alone and yet who spent much time of his tenure isolated and, thereby, weakened by the farthest-right conservative factions of his party.
Since announcing his intention to resign from Congress in September, Boehner has made no secret of the joy he feels in leaving Washington. On Friday, he will return to Ohio and, for the first time in nearly a decade, do the ordinary things people do when not accompanied by a security detail, such as drive a car. After that, his schedule won’t be known to the public, and Monday morning he will wake up without a job for the first time since he was 8 years old, when he worked at his father’s bar and threw newspapers.
But for all the relief and happiness Boehner feels — “I leave with no regret or burdens,” he said Thursday — that brief sigh, more than the prop box of tissues he wielded before he began his speech to the laughter and cheers of his fellow members, was a reminder that Boehner was a man walking away from the job he always dreamed of under circumstances that would have not only tested but also likely broken others much sooner.
Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner hugs his successor, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, in the House chamber Thursday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
He talks often of his disappointment that he wasn’t able to secure a “grand bargain” budget deal with President Obama in the summer of 2011. He also privately admits he wanted to pass an immigration reform bill.
The House he is leaving with the newly elected speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, whom Boehner wooed for weeks to run after his chosen successor withdrew, is a body defined by a fractured Republican Party that often has allowed 40 to 60 of its most conservative members to set the tone and agenda of the chamber. But an optimist might look at the turmoil that has roiled the party this year, forcing out Boehner and intimidating Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy out of running to succeed him, and think there’s only space to go up from here.
“The mission is not complete, and the truth is, it may never be. One thing I came to realize is that this battle over the size and scope of government has been going on for more than 200 years,” Boehner told a full, bipartisan meeting of the House before a roll call vote was held to replace him.
“The forces of the status quo go to an awful lot of trouble to prevent change. Real change takes time. … Yes, freedom makes all things possible. But patience is what makes all things real,” he continued. “So believe in the long, slow struggle. Believe in this country’s ability to meet her challenges and lead the world. Believe in the decency of people to come together and do what can be done. And remember: You can’t do a big job alone, especially this one.”
A voter who turned on C-SPAN for the first time ever on Thursday and heard Republicans saying nice things about Democrats, Democrats saying nice things about Republicans, and members of both parties talking earnestly about public service and the power of the institution of the House, would probably wonder why congressional approval ratings are so abysmally low.
Thursday’s session was marked by all the hope and energy of the first day of classes, from Boehner’s swan song to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s speech to new speaker Ryan’s first address to his House.
Members brought their children to watch the formal roll call vote — requiring each member to declare aloud a choice for speaker — to witness a piece of history. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who ran on the 2012 GOP ticket with Ryan, attended with his wife, Ann. So were some of Boehner’s closest friends in Washington, such as Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who sat in a row with the House GOP leadership team for Boehner’s address.
Ryan waves to colleagues, staff and family after being elected as the next speaker of the House. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Nine Republican members voted against Ryan and for the ultraconservative Daniel Webster of Florida, who had openly campaigned for the job but on Thursday morning was urging his House Freedom Caucus colleagues on the floor to unite behind Ryan.
Ryan, who at 45 years old will be the youngest speaker in nearly 150 years, had told his colleagues he would seek the speakership only if he felt he could unite the party.
Republicans did mostly unite for this vote, more so than they did the last time a roll call was held to give Boehner the gavel, when 25 members defected. But the question now remains: How long will that unity last? And is Ryan the right person to try to unite them?
Both establishment and conservative Republicans are betting the answer to the latter question is yes, but plenty of obstacles remain for Ryan as he tries to navigate a new speakership he never wanted.
The Wisconsin Republican’s speech on Thursday, with his wife and three children watching from the gallery, was at times hopeful, at times sounding a warning to his colleagues and mostly just an attempt to get past the animosity and mistrust that did in his predecessor.
“What a relief [to Americans] it would be if we finally got our act together — what a weight off their shoulders. How reassuring it would be if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their health care, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty and paid down the debt,” Ryan said. “At this point, nothing could be more inspiring than a job well done. Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.
“The cynics will scoff and say it’s not possible,” Ryan continued. “But you better believe we are going to try. We will not duck the tough issues. We will take them head-on.”
Ryan’s collision course with the issues — and his own conference — starts in earnest Friday. The new speaker has promised rules changes, a return to regular procedural order and increased opportunities for the hardline conservative faction to debate measures on the floor.
But Boehner, who Pelosi said was the living embodiment of the American dream, once had those same aspirations. And he probably could not have imagined how his almost 25-year congressional career, which began as a back-bencher in the Republican minority, would end.
“The hill had twists. And it had turns. And even a few tears … nothing wrong with that,” Boehner said Thursday. “But let me tell you, it was all just perfect. Never forget, we are the luckiest people on the face of the earth. In America, you can do anything if you’re willing to work hard and make the necessary sacrifices. If you falter — and you will — you can just dust yourself off and keep on going. Because hope always springs eternal. And if you just do the right things for the right reasons, good things will happen. And this too can really happen to you.”
It has now happened to Ryan. Time to see what he’ll do with it.
(Cover tile photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)