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John Boehner’s Downfall and the Bottom-Up Demands of Republican Leadership

Durham, NC – When Sen. Marco Rubio broke the news to the Values Voters Summit that House Speaker John Boehner was resigning, the socially conservative activists in attendance responded with raucous applause.

How did someone with one of the most conservative voting records in the House of Representatives become so reviled by so many in the Republican Party?

The rise of the Tea Party and its influence in securing a landslide victory for Republicans in 2010 elevated Boehner from Minority Leader to Speaker of the House. But many of these new first-time representatives identified more with the principles of the Tea Party movement than the Republican Party itself., valuing ideological orthodoxy above all else and opposing attempts to compromise with President Obama or Senate Democrats.

The movement also had a significant effect on the behavior of incumbent Republicans. The primary defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah in 2010 by a Tea Party challenger led many Republicans to adopt the Tea Party platform in hopes of dissuading primary challengers to their right. These conditions led to Boehner leading a caucus where many members were more interested in holding “show votes” to repeal Obamacare than in cooperating with him to lead the House.

As Speaker, Boehner attempted to follow the “Hastert Rule” (named after previous Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert) in which he would not bring any measure to the House floor for a vote unless a “majority of the majority” supported it. But Boehner deviated from this “rule” seven times since 2013 to narrowly avoid (or end) government shutdowns and raise the debt ceiling. This led many to claim that Boehner and other Republican leaders had sold out the rank and file members to appease the Tea Partiers.

The latest threat — in response to Planned Parenthood sting videos — led many social conservatives in the House to threaten a government shutdown unless funding for the organization was eliminated. Boehner’s unwillingness to take this course of action raised the possibility that a confidence vote over his leadership would be held in the Republican caucus. While he was likely to survive this attempt, the vote itself would have been an embarrassing spectacle for Boehner and the Republican Party. He resigned to preempt this possibility and prevent a government shutdown that would do serious damage to the Republican brand less than three months before the Iowa caucuses.

Boehner’s downfall parallels the dilemma that Republican presidential candidates currently face. In order to attain the nomination, they drive each other to ideological extremes to win the support of Republican activists. However, adopting these views in an era of mass communication could make any deviation in the general election costly. This reality damaged Mitt Romney in 2012. It will be interesting to see how the eventual Republican nominee maintains the balance.