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True Conservatives

When Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his resignation last last week, the narrative quickly emerged that he was pushed out by conservative members of his own party, those identifying with the Tea Party caucus. And rumor has it that the same group seeks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell resignation as well. The Tea Party faction is upset at what they perceive as Boehner's (and McConnell's) ineffectiveness at advancing their agenda and stopping that of President Obama.

Tea Partiers point to several key budget fights—the 2011 debt ceiling compromise, the 2013 "fiscal cliff" battle, the 2013 government shutdown, the 2014 debt ceiling increase, the 2015 Department of Homeland Security funding—where Boehner and mainstream Republicans passed legislation with more help from Democrats than from the Tea Party.

The Tea Partiers simply don't understand how our system of government works. Boehner understood, like a number of other Republican leaders (including McConnell as well as former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker and even former President Ronald Reagan), that being a leader in a democracy doesn't mean insisting on having your way all the time. Effective governing means pushing for realistic goals. It means picking your battles and making strategic compromises so both sides can feel like they've accomplished something. It means crafting a bill that can win support of the majority of the Congress, regardless of political affiliation.

The Tea Party has no interest in effective governing. Discussing the attempt to defund Obamacare by shutting down the government, Boehner told John Dickerson of Face the Nation:

This plan never had a chance. But over the course of the August recess in 2013 and the course of September, a lot of my Republican colleagues who knew it was a fool's errand, they were getting a lot of pressure at home to do this. And so we got groups here in town, members, the House and Senate here in town who whipped people into a frenzy believing they could accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.

Boehner's own philosophy can be found in the advice he offered his successor.

"Just do the right things for the right reasons," Boehner advised. "If you keep the country's best interests in mind and have the courage to do what you can do, then it's easy to have the courage to do what you can't do.

"It's not about Hail Mary passes. It's the Woody Hayes school of football. Three yards and a cloud of dust. Three yards and a cloud of dust. It's a slow and methodical process," he said.

Boehner understands how to work the process. Despite cutting deals, Boehner has found ways to hold the line on federal spending. He is the first House leader in nearly a century to produce three consecutive budgets with lower overall spending than the previous year, and he did it despite having to make allowances for growth in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending. And he did it despite repeatedly having to rely on help from the opposition party to keep the government operating.

For Tea Partiers, that wasn't enough. Todd Miller of the Conservative Book Club went so far as to question Boehner's conservative credentials:

"I think there are sort of elements of conservatism that he's incorporated into his political philosophy, but a bona fide conservative — no," Miller said. "I think he's more of a pragmatist, deal broker than a true ideological conservative."

Karla Bruno, an attendee of the Values Voter Summit, sees Boehner's resignation as a victory for conservatives.

"I don't think he's effective, and if you're not effective you might as well be gone. ... The fact that he resigned tells me that the pressure was working and the conservatives pushing for constitutional rights ... are winning."

This notion of "constitutional rights" permeates Tea Party rhetoric, yet it is at odds with the political process put in place by the Founding Fathers. Boehner explained in his Face the Nation interview:

Our founders didn't want some parliamentary system where if you won the majority you got to do whatever you wanted to do. They wanted this long, slow press. So change comes slowly, and obviously too slowly for some.

A New York Times article published during the 2013 budget fight showed how the Tea Party has strayed from traditional conservatism. Contrasting Bob Dole's tenure in the Senate with today's Republicans, the Times found the difference was not in the rhetoric but in the willingness to govern.

Mr. Dole spent years pushing big tax cuts, railing at regulations and blocking international treaties. His party actively courted the religious right in the 1980s and relied on racial innuendo to win elections. But when the time came to actually govern, Republicans used to set aside their grandstanding, recognize that a two-party system requires compromise and make deals to keep the government working on the people’s behalf.

In an interview with Fox News, also in 2013, Dole openly questioned whether he would be accepted as a Republican today, and said of today's Republican Party:

I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says closed for repairs until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.

The Republicans and Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s worked together to give us Social Security reform, acid rain regulations, protection for the ozone layer, immigration reform, enhancements to the Clean Air Act, banking reform, the Americans with Disabilities Act, tariff reduction, welfare reform, defense contract reform, more immigration reform, and more banking reform.

Recognizing problems that need to be solved is an essential part of governing. Recognizing that each piece of legislation will have problems that need to be fixed later is part of the slow, methodical political process that is essential to a democratic republic. A genuine leader—whether conservative, liberal, or moderate—needs to be able to work within that process to solve problems. John Boehner understood that; the Tea Party caucus never will.

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