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What Paul Ryan can learn from John Boehner’s ‘tell-all’ interview

- November 1, 2017

The Beltway crowd has been abuzz over the recent Politico story about former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Over the course of several interviews, Boehner speaks candidly about the reasons he abruptly resigned from the House and offers blunt assessments of President Trump, Barack Obama and members of Congress from both parties.

Hidden among the “can-you-believe-he-said-that” quotes are some valuable insights into the politics of the modern speakership. Let’s look at how Boehner’s interview illuminates the challenges facing his successor, Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and what may be in store for Ryan’s relationship with the Trump White House.

1. Speakers of the House are usually institutionalists.

In my book about the speakership, I argue that speakers are motivated in part to serve the institutional interests of the House (which can include the office of speaker). As the article makes clear, Boehner was no exception.

For instance, in July 2015 conservative dissenter Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) filed a motion to vacate the chair, which if approved would have removed Boehner as speaker. But Boehner decided to resign instead, partly because a vote on the motion, in his words, “would be awful for the institution.”

If Ryan is an institutionalist as well, he might also resign if faced with a motion to vacate the chair. It’s more likely, though, that we’ll see his institutionalism reveal in other ways — pushing back if, for instance, Trump interferes too deeply in congressional affairs.

2. Speakers rarely remain popular.

Being speaker is a surefire way to become disliked. As Paul Kane recently documented, Ryan’s approval ratings have sunk since he was elected to the position. The same happened to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during her term as speaker. Boehner faced an identical fate: Not just Democrats but even conservative voters disliked him.

Why? Kane suggests it may be because of negative advertising by the opposing party, but the causes are probably deeper. The speaker operates in a polarized political environment, is the public face of a perpetually unpopular Congress, and makes decisions that people from both parties are bound to dislike. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Kane, “I’d rather be in Gitmo than do that [job] all day.”

3. Speakers are expected to take flak for their party, even if it proves fatal.

Speakers follow a core unwritten rule of leadership: Protect your fellow partisans. Unfortunately, as Boehner’s case reveals, taking too much flak can make a speaker so unpopular that he becomes politically vulnerable.

For Boehner, who was planning to retire anyway, avoiding the floor vote on the motion to vacate the chair by resigning early protected other Republicans from publicly endorsing a speaker whom their base disliked. “All these Republicans were going to get crap at home for supporting me,” as he puts it, “only to have me leave soon after that.”

Ryan is undoubtedly aware of this expectation, which challenges his tenure as it did Boehner’s. But it also has implications for how he’ll deal with an unpopular White House. Ryan has already shown he will distance himself from Trump if he thinks it will help his colleagues get reelected.

4. Speaker of the House is not a secure job.

The office of speaker was once held until death or retirement. No longer. As I have noted elsewhere, every speaker since 1987 has either resigned, as did Boehner, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Jim Wright (D-Tex.); lost reelection to the House, the fate that befell Tom Foley (D-Wash.); or lost their party majority, as happened to Pelosi and Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Given the position’s unpopularity and flak-taking responsibilities, this should come as little surprise. But there other forces at work, too. These include greater party competition, which make majorities less secure, and more assertive factions within the majority party, willing to openly challenge the speaker — a phenomenon that has plagued House Republicans in particular since 2010.

If Ryan, like Boehner, is forced to step down before he’s ready, he can at least look to his predecessor for inspiration. Playing golf and sipping merlot is not a bad way to spend one’s retirement.

Matthew Green is a professor of politics at Catholic University. His most recent book is “Underdog Politics: The Minority Party in the U.S. House of Representatives.” (Yale University Press, 2015).