September 29, 2015

RUBASHKIN | Et tu, Boehner?

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Act III, scene 1 of Julius Caesar is perhaps the most famous scene in dramatic history. Basking in the glow of his latest victories on the battlefield, Caesar re­turns to Rome, and on March 15, he travels to address the Roman Senate. It is here where he is attacked by a group of nobles, led by Caesar’s own dear friend Brutus. Caesar, at his most triumphant and strongest, is cut down by those closest to him. A vicious power struggle ensues, tearing the empire apart and concluding with the suicide of Brutus himself.

Since Shakespeare’s masterwork debuted on the stage of the Theatre Globe in London, countless Brutuses have shed the blood of countless Caesars. This past week, yet another Brutus plunged his dagger into a Caesar, this time not on the steps of the Roman Senate but in the hallowed halls of the United States Congress.

This Brutus goes by the name of John Boehner, and he has served his country and his constituency for over two decades. This Brutus is the son of a barkeep who rose through the ranks of the Republican Party to become Speaker of the House and to preside over several of the most tumultuous sessions of Congress in recent memory. This Brutus does not use a dagger, but rather something mightier — in this case the pen with which he writes legislation. And most importantly, this Brutus does not feel the need to work with the secrecy that Brutus and his co-conspirator Cassius shrouded themselves in. No, this Brutus has telegraphed his attack to the utmost degree, and all his Caesar can do is watch helplessly as the plot unfolds.

Last Friday, Speaker Boehner rocked the political world by proverbially running on his own sword. Effective November 1, Boehner will resign both his position as Speaker of the House and the congressional seat he has held since 1990. The timing of this announcement is not coincidental. Barring legislative budgetary action, the government will shut down — once again — on October 1. In order to avert this fate, Republicans and Democrats must agree on a spending bill that can garner enough support to pass both houses of Congress and win the President’s signature. As the last five years have shown us, this is a task of monumental proportions.

No man knows this better than Speaker Boehner. Since his ascendency, Boehner has been forced to fight a two-front war. The first is against Congressional Democrats, who remain uniformly and diametrically opposed to most if not all of the Speaker’s politics. Such an adversarial relationship has existed since the advent of the two-party system and is to be expected in any Speaker’s tenure. It is the second front of Boehner’s war that has proved to be far more fatal. This is his ongoing conflict with the most conservative members of his party, the very faction that helped place the gavel in his hands in 2010. Since that coronation, Boehner’s own Republican caucus has proven nothing but a sea of troubles for the embattled Speaker.

They have taken the country to the brink of catastrophe seemingly every year, sometimes in pursuit of quixotic goals such as the repeal of Obamacare, and sometimes seemingly just for the very hell of it. This time, the object of their ire is Planned Parenthood, a family-planning organization that receives substantial federal funding and also provides necessary medical services (including abortions) to women in need. And this time,  the Republicans have under their control not only the House of Representatives, but also the United States Senate. Indeed, at this very moment, the Caesar of congressional conservatism is at its most powerful.

We have seen this play before. Congress brings us to the brink of calamity, and then the leaders of both parties piece together a passable piece of temporary legislation to keep the government hobbling along for another year. Faced with constant threats of mutiny from within his own party, Boehner has never been able to orchestrate the elusive “Grand Bargain” with the Democrats and Obama. Conventional wisdom says that the following weeks should proceed as they have the past four years. However, due to Boehner’s resignation, this time will be different.

It’s no coincidence that Boehner announced his retirement the day after Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress and brought the Speaker to tears. Pope Francis preaches a more welcoming morality than that of the current Republican party. He appeals to a population much wider than just the world’s Catholics and has shown the potential to enact real change through compassion in both the Church itself and the broader international sphere (he has already been credited with the opening of Cuba). He represents a breath of fresh air in an institution that has needed a spring cleaning for several centuries. Speaker Boehner likewise has been trapped in a stodgy institution for far too long, and it took the physical presence of the Pope to show him the error in his ways. Simply put, Francis showed Boehner the light. The Speaker, like all of us, only has finite time here, and has come to the realization that his time is better spent in pursuit of compassion rather than adversity, which is all that awaits him in Congress. For John Boehner, this is less a resignation and more an ascension.

By announcing his resignation, Boehner liberated himself. He is free to negotiate with the Democrats and with the moderates without fear of a coup by those to his right. Boehner has realized that the status quo is unsustainable, and that if we truly want to move the country forward we have to work together. Compromise is anathema to the most conservative, so he has deprived that faction of their most powerful weapon: leverage. Now that he does not have to worry about his right flank, Boehner will not be forced to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood. He will not be forced into making irresponsible decisions based on an ideology of intransigence. He may have rejected the political agenda of the most vocal faction of his party, but he did so because he has realized that there is a better path forward and that life is too short to waste time like we have been for the past five years. It was not that Boehner loves his party less, but that he loves America more.

Like the actions of Brutus, the actions of Boehner will lead to a bloody fight over the future of Congressional Republicans. Already, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is moving to wrap up the 218 votes necessary to become the next speaker. McCarthy will need the support of at least some of the most conservative Republicans to win that post, thus restoring some of their lost leverage. They could end up the real victors in this situation and elect one of their own, an ideologue like Peter Roskam or Steve Scalise. But all that is uncertain. What is clear is that Boehner has cleared the path to negotiate his way through the crises d’jour — the debt ceiling, the Import-Export Bank, government shutdowns, etc. — without the support of the most conservative Republicans, ensuring, at least for the short term, that the state of the union remains strong.

Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jrubashkin@cornellsun.com. The Jacobin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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