High-Value Target

At the Values Voter Summit, conservatives rejoiced when they heard House Speaker John Boehner was gone.

John Boehner
This is actually John Boehner in D.C. on Sept. 17, 2015, not watching a live feed of the Values Voter Summit on Friday.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Attendees at the Values Voter Summit, the Family Research Council’s annual D.C. conference for social conservatives, went wild when they heard the news.

House Speaker John Boehner made the announcement to his conference at the Capitol while Sen. John McCain was kicking off festivities at the VVS across town. Sen. Marco Rubio was the lucky duck who got to announce it to the crowd. “Just a few minutes ago, Speaker Boehner announced he would be resigning.” Rubio, the quickest candidate on his feet in the race, neatly pivoted this into an endorsement of his own campaign theme. While he wasn’t there to “bash” anyone, Rubio said, “the time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, was perfectly comfortable bashing Boehner. The man who’s been leading efforts to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress flattered everyone assembled at Woodley Park’s Omni Shoreham complex, crediting them with the coup. “Yesterday John Boehner was speaker of the House,” he said. “Y’all come to town and somehow that changes. My only request is, can you come more often?”

It’s a hard-earned victory for conservatives, and they were in a mood to celebrate. “American voters who put the Republican Party into the majority have grown weary of GOP leaders running into these political battles waving a white flag,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “We welcome Republican leadership that understands that some values, like life, religious liberty, and national defense, are worth fighting for—no matter what.”

But what can a speaker with more “fight” achieve?

Contrary to popular myth at places like the Values Voter Summit, Boehner was a captive of few options. Far-right House conservatives win election and re-election by posturing in opposition to the Washington Establishment, regardless of what fouls the Establishment may or may not have committed. As long as the Senate filibuster exists and Democrats control the White House, neither Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has much ability to enact the party’s ideological goals. It has nothing to do with Boehner or McConnell secretly harboring affection for abortion or the Affordable Care Act.

The obvious choice for the next speaker would be current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. If House conservatives’ goal is simply regicide, then McCarthy—who’s not a hard right-winger but is personally on good terms with many of the Tea Party types—is a fine choice. Other candidates who’ve been mentioned as possible replacements include Reps. Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling. If, however, the idea is to find a speaker with more “spine” than Boehner, someone who can push their ideological wish list through either the government funding or debt ceiling mechanisms, conservatives will remain disappointed as long as a Democrat remains in the White House.

McCain, one of the few procedural realists at the VVS, signaled as much in his speech. “Hopefully,” he explained about the Planned Parenthood controversy, “we’ll have a pro-life White House to work with soon.” The subtext: Please, let’s fund the government without drama until then. McCain is not particularly well-received at conservative confabs.

Donald Trump, however, is adored at these venues. Whether for his conservative credentials or, more likely, his celebrity, Trump was mobbed by reporters and fans as he entered the hotel complex. After getting in a jab at his latest media-showcased sparring partner, Rubio—a “baby” who “doesn’t show up to vote,” in Trump’s words—he chimed in on Boehner’s resignation. He was unsurprisingly delighted with the news. “I think it’s wonderful, frankly,” he said. He agreed that Boehner was not conservative enough.

That’s really the only acceptable answer for a Republican presidential candidate. The campaign-Congress feedback loop is going to amplify the myth that House Republicans’ inability to win a brinksmanship battle was due to its moderate, or perhaps even liberal, speaker. The systemic flaws that brought down Boehner will bring down the next speaker, assuming the House Republican Conference can settle on one.

There’s real danger if Republicans can’t corral 218 votes among themselves—and Democrats decide to engage in mischief during a speaker election. If GOP members deadlocked between factions, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could rally Democrats around someone who pledges to treat the minority more favorably.

That’s something that appeals to James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a more left-leaning Catholic social justice advocacy group. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a bipartisan effort to find a leader who could get a majority of votes to lead this country in a responsible way?” asked Salt, who was hovering around the VVS on Friday. That would align well with Pope Francis’ message to Congress on Thursday. And it definitely wouldn’t be popular among conservatives.

“We need to look forward to the new leadership, the new conservative leadership,” David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, said in introducing the crowd to Donald Trump. Someone “who will fight Barack Obama.”

Trump himself came out wielding a Bible. “We had some big news today with Boehner,” he said to more raucous cheers. “Some people like him on the personal basis”—a modest wave of “NO” emerged from the crowd—but “we want to see the job done properly. We want to see people getting it done.” If Republicans are unified, he mused, we’re “gonna win.” He leveled this charge against the Republican leadership, not at the 40-some conservative gadflies in the House.

The Values Voter Summit, of course, ate it up.