by Michael Dorf
As the shock of John Boehner's resignation from the Speaker's chair turns to dread, the main story line is one of appreciation and grim foreboding. From the Democrats' perspective, yes, Boehner was conservative but he was a pragmatic conservative who did a decent job holding things together so that the government could function (mostly) by alternatively reining in the Tea Party/extreme right of the Republican Party and giving them just enough to make them, if not happy, at least unsuccessful in their efforts to sabotage the government.
There is undoubtedly some truth in that characterization. Judged at least by the tactical standards of the modern GOP, Boehner is a moderate. One can imagine having a rational conversation with Boehner about government spending and taxes, even if his substantive positions would be conservative by the standards of the Democratic Party and nearly every left, center-left, and even center-right party in the world. By contrast, given the sorts of things that come out of the mouths of many of the Tea Partiers in Congress and most of the current Republican presidential candidates, it is hard to imagine a conversation with any of them on nearly any topic that wouldn't lead one to marvel that they're not wearing tin-foil hats.
Yet despite the truth to the story of Boehner as the hero we don't really appreciate until he's gone, focusing on this story obscures the larger truth about the GOP over the last four and a half decades but especially since the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010. Even as the ostensible grownups in the Republican leadership tried to prevent the the hard right from driving the Party and the country over a cliff, that same leadership was (mostly) perfectly happy to win congressional elections by courting hard-right support.
The dangerous game that the GOP leadership played over this period is perhaps most aptly analogized to Pakistani policy with respect to terrorism.
"You can't keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously told the Pakistani government in 2011. Her complaint was that Pakistan was supporting the Afghan Taliban and giving safe harbor to the Haqqani network based on an understanding that these groups would attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan but not Pakistani targets in Pakistan. As the chief diplomat of the U.S., Clinton's chief concern was for U.S. troops and interests, but her statement was also a warning about blowback: Pakistan would not be able to control the radical fundamentalists it was supporting; they would eventually turn (indeed many had already turned) on Pakistan.
Similar warnings have been issued to the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party for years: You can't keep winning congressional elections based on support from socially conservative, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-corporate Tea Partiers and expect them to fall into line when the party elders insist on some measure on sanity to avoid shutting down the government, sending markets into a tailspin, and doing permanent damage to the global economy along with GOP brand. Or at least you shouldn't be surprised when the snakes don't fall into line.