John Boehner and the Judgment of History

by Bob Schwartz

John Boehner
John Boehner says he isn’t worried that compromising on taxes will result in his losing his job as House Speaker. It is a matter of principle.

He may be telling the truth, but it doesn’t matter.

When asked whether Americans will blame the Republicans for the stalemate, his answer isn’t that he doesn’t care, but that it would be wrong. President Obama and the Democrats are to blame, even if polls say that many people believe otherwise.

That doesn’t matter either.

The question isn’t whether Boehner cares about keeping his job (which he does) or whether he cares that many Americans blame him and the Republicans (which he does).

The question is about history.

Republicans have for quite a while seemed to be unconcerned about the judgment of history. There’s a practical reason for this: people vote, not history. And most people aren’t that interested in history. Anyway, history is often equivocal, so in those moments when people do care, history can be spun to say almost anything.

But, for example, history continues to be a problem for the Republicans and their most historic President. The principles of and lessons from Lincoln are not always congruent with current GOP practice and rhetoric. This is how Southern Republicans during the Civil Rights era didn’t just come to distance themselves from the Great Emancipator; they fled the party.

History is turning on the Republicans. An entire two-term Presidency—eight years of George W. Bush—has had to be nearly buried so that the party could move on. The most recent financial misstep, the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, looked at first like it could be blamed on an ineffectual President. But history has stepped in. Obama’s leadership has been established and electorally endorsed, And now that event looks like a dark mirror of this moment—a mirror featuring John Boehner’s face.

When the movie of this moment is made, the question for Boehner is who he wants to be. He’s not going to be Lincoln, he’s not going to be Thaddeus Stevens. The way it looks now, he may be one of those supporting characters, a middling Congressional leader serving as an antagonist, helping to move the action along by opposing it. He is a decent man, he may yet keep his Speakership, and the country may yet, hopefully, avoid another crisis. But history won’t care about any of that. It is ruthless in its judgment, and John Boehner still has time to sway it.