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The Divided Mind and Politics of John Boehner

The fact that partisanship, rather than reform, drove his actions quickly became clear at the time. Boehner, who is now a lobbyist for the cannabis industry, shed most of his concerns about political civility after Republicans came to power in 1994. He himself emerged at the center of the nexus that connected private money, corporate lobbyists and political parties.

It wasn’t just that Boehner took money and hired staff members from interest groups. He was in the Republican leadership that started the notorious K Street Project, which created a revolving door between lobbyists and party loyalists. When top staffers left their jobs, they were instantly hired by interest groups that relied on them to gain access on Capitol Hill; as a Republican leader, Boehner played his part. He headed the Thursday Group, which brought together lobbyists and legislators. In 1996, Boehner was caught handing out campaign checks from the tobacco industry on the House floor just as subsidies to the industry were being considered; Boehner dismisses the incident by saying that times were different.

Hardly the stuff of reform. Nor was Boehner’s commitment to issues very pure. He railed against higher debt when Democrats were in the White House, less so when George W. Bush was the president.

The former speaker is determined to wipe his hands clean of the radicals who now dominate his party. The memoir posits a stark divide between the Republican universe before and after 2008. “None of us were crazy — well most of us weren’t anyway — and we also knew our limits,” he notes. Even in 2009, he insists, the bones of traditional party were still there. Boehner claims that there were a “bunch” of Republicans who would have voted for Obama’s stimulus bill if only he had consulted with them. This argument comes from a leader whose Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, vowed to make Obama a one-term president. It also mischaracterizes an administration that went overboard, to the consternation of liberals, to negotiate with a party hellbent on obstruction.

The artificiality of this divide is especially evident in Boehner’s discussion of the conservative media. While acknowledging that the world of Fox News is now a “Looneyville” of conspiracy theory, Boehner insists that things used to be different. Although Bob Grant once wished that Haitian immigrants would drown and Rush Limbaugh lashed out against “feminazis,” Boehner tells us that the right-wing airwaves used to be tame.

Indeed, Boehner is a prime example of how the Republican establishment made peace with extremists in pursuit of power. In describing the younger conservatives in 2008, he shows he understood what he was dealing with, referring to Republicans from “Crazytown” who tried that year to subvert President Bush’s stimulus package. And two years later, he recalls, “you could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name.” Yet during that very campaign, Boehner helped provide financial support to Tea Party candidates and heaped praise on them as “the latest example of how the Tea Party movement has done this nation a great service.” Though Boehner has continued to be haunted by memories of his ouster by the right in 1998, he knew that harnessing rage could be an effective tactic.

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