John Boehner On The 'Noisemakers' Of The Republican Party

Originally published on April 12, 2021 6:44 am

John Boehner says he couldn't win an election as a Republican these days.

"I think I'd have a pretty tough time," he says. "I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy. And, you know, these days crazy gets elected. On the left and the right."

Boehner has a new memoir, On the House, about his time in politics.

His refrain is familiar — a retired politician bemoaning increased polarization and partisanship, laying the blame squarely on both parties — though as a member of House Republican leadership for much of his career, he has more experience and more stories about dealing with the "noisemakers" and "knuckleheads" within his own ranks.

Boehner was first elected to the House in 1990 as a firebrand conservative from Ohio, rising to become House speaker with the help of Republican Tea Party victories in the 2010 midterms. Until his retirement in 2015, he led a Republican caucus largely focused on undoing former President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul — even if it meant shutting down the government.

St. Martin's Press

Boehner's memoir tells of his attempts through the years to corral his members. As he tells Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition, often that meant going in directions he personally opposed.

He relates the situations to one of his folksy sayings — "Boehnerisms" — that says, "A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk."

"There were a couple of times where I found myself taking a walk. And I was going one direction, the team was going some other direction," Boehner says.

One of those times came in 2013, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other hard-line Republicans forced a government shutdown in a failed attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.

"And even though I didn't really want to go the direction where the team's going, they were the ones who elected me to be the leader and I had an obligation to go lead them," Boehner tells NPR. "So that means I had to go jump out in front of them, even if I thought what they were trying to do really made not a whole lot of sense."

Boehner's retirement in 2015 allowed him to avoid working with former President Donald Trump in the White House. By the time of Trump's swearing in, Boehner writes that he was "not sure I belonged to the Republican Party he created."

Boehner tells NPR that when Trump refused to accept his election loss, "he really abused the loyalty and trust that his voters and supporters placed in him."

Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

You describe the way that you ran meetings when you were speaker of the House or really in any leadership position. You say that the key thing was to listen to other people and figure out what was on their minds and which way the room was going.

Well, I was in the sales and marketing business before I got into politics and learned a few things about sales. The most important thing about a salesman is not his ability or her ability to talk. It's their ability to listen. Because if you're listening to the person across the desk, you have a pretty good idea what it is they're looking for and you can figure out a way to get there.

And no different in politics, because in politics — especially in the Congress — you've got this large body of people that you're trying to move in a particular direction. You really can't even begin to move them until you understand where they are and why they are where they are.

Your party captured the House in 2010. It was driven by the Tea Party movement. You make it clear that there are a lot of people in the Tea Party movement that you consider "crazies." But at the time, you made sure there was no distance, no gap between mainstream Republicans and Tea Party types. You knew that was the way to power.

Well, the fact is they got elected as Republicans, they were members of the Republican conference and most of those so-called Tea Party candidates became what I would describe as regular Republicans. There were a few who I would describe as knuckleheads who all they want to do is create chaos. But the fact is they got elected. I was the speaker and I had to find a way forward as a team.

What do you think about some of the leading figures in your party, the way that it has gone in recent years?

Well, the people of governing in Washington today on both sides of the aisle have an even more difficult task than I did. The country is far more polarized now than it was 10, 12 years ago. And that means the people trying to govern have an even more difficult time trying to bring two sides together, or for that matter bring one side together.

I get the impression, though, that you think that a lot of leading personalities in your party don't really stand for anything, don't really believe in anything.

Well, listen, I've been around politics now for 40 years, and I thought I knew something about politics. But clearly today, I don't know as much as I thought I knew about politics. Because, you know, I'm a Republican, actually. I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy. And then they've got, I don't know, these noisemakers, I'll call them. But Nancy Pelosi's got the same problem on her side of the aisle.

When you talk about noisemakers, who do you mean? Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan?

Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan. I could go down a long list of people who are more interested in making noise than they are in doing things on behalf of the country. Sometimes I get the idea that they'd rather tear the whole system down and start over because I've never seen anything that they were for. I know what they're against, but I've never really seen what they're for.

There's a case to be made that the Republican Party today is abandoning the idea of democracy. So many people supported the effort to overturn the 2020 election. So many state lawmakers now are pushing for voting restrictions based on false claims about that election. What do you make of that argument?

Listen, the election is over. I listened to all that noise before the election, after the election. And, you know, there's always a few irregularities, but there's really been nothing of any significance that would have changed one state's election outcome, not one. Nothing even close.

I just find what President Trump did before the election, especially what he did after the election, he really abused the loyalty and trust that his voters and supporters placed in him by continually telling them that the election was going to be stolen before the election. And then after the election, telling them that the election was stolen without providing any evidence, no facts. And that's the part about this that really disturbs me the most.

People who were loyal to me, people who trusted me, I felt like I had a responsibility to be honest with them, straightforward with them. And to see this loyalty and trust be abused by President Trump, it was really kind of disheartening at best.

Bo Hamby and Reena Advani produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

John Boehner of Ohio would like you to know that many years in Congress and five years as speaker of the House did not change him at all.

JOHN BOEHNER: Now, listen; I'm just a regular guy who used to have a big job. And I think one of my proudest accomplishments was walking out of Congress after 25 years pretty much being the same jackass that walked in.

INSKEEP: In a memoir, Boehner says he just tried to be himself. The cover of "On The House" shows him sitting in what looks like a bar holding a glass of red wine. He is the son of a Cincinnati bar owner. He never minded having a glass and disregarded a House ban on smoking. He writes like a guy chatting in a bar and talks of his experience, including his experience with his fellow Republicans, using so much vulgarity that it would be hard for him to do a reading here on the radio, all of which leaves a question - how did this mainstream Midwestern Republican end up so distant from the party he quite recently led?

Do you really think that if you were running for office today in the Republican Party, you couldn't get elected?

BOEHNER: Oh, I think I'd have a pretty tough time. You know, like I said, I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy.

INSKEEP: Boehner was elected to the House in 1990. He became speaker in 2010, as Republicans captured the House with the help of Tea Party activists opposed to Barack Obama, the first Black president. Boehner led their efforts to derail Obama's spending proposals. But in retrospect, he says, many of his colleagues didn't care about spending or government debt; they just cared about creating, quote, "chaos." "On The House" is a story of a leader trying to stay in front of his followers.

It's really interesting to hear you describe the way that you ran meetings when you were speaker of the House or, really, in any leadership position. You say that the key thing was to listen to other people and figure out what was on their minds and which way the room was going.

BOEHNER: Well, I was in the sales and marketing business before I got into politics. The most important thing about salesmen is not his ability or her ability to talk; it's their ability to listen because if you're listening to the person across the desk, you have a pretty good idea what it is they're looking for, and you can figure out a way to get there. And no different in politics because, in politics, especially in the Congress, you've got this large body of people that you're trying to move in a particular direction. You can't - really can't even begin to move them till you understand where they are and why they are where they are.

INSKEEP: Some of your frustrations that you describe seem to come from moments where, in the end, the great body of Republicans moved you in a particular direction you didn't want to go.

BOEHNER: Oh, there were certainly times that that happened. You've all heard the old saying - a leader without followers is just a man taking a walk. And there were a couple of times where I found myself taking a walk, and I was going in one direction; the team was going in some other direction. And even though I didn't really want to go the direction where the team's going, they were the ones who elected me to be the leader, and I had an obligation to go lead them. So that means I had to go jump out in front of them, even if I thought what they were trying to do really made not a whole lot of sense.

INSKEEP: Is that what happened in the debt ceiling crisis of 2011? And so much has happened I feel I need to remind people that was an occasion in which Republicans had just captured the House. Barack Obama was president. And Republicans demanded that the government instantly stop borrowing money, which was a thing that would potentially destroy the economy. And it came very close to some disaster.

BOEHNER: Yeah, the 2011 debt crisis was one of those examples. In 2013, there was an effort led by some of the knuckleheads to shut the government down, not pay our bills with regard to the debt ceiling, unless President Obama agreed to get rid of Obamacare. Well, that wasn't going to happen. But now that's where the team got wound up, and a lot of Republicans around the country got wound up. And I had to quickly jump out in front of my team before I was just a man taking a walk.

INSKEEP: Did you really have no choice? Could you not have said, listen - I'm speaker, we're not doing this, this is insane?

BOEHNER: Well, yeah, you can do that. But guess what? You're not going to be speaker very long. Trust me. I tried to tell them. We don't want to go there. And I tried to tell them, you don't want to go there. But guess what? Sometimes they just want to go there.

INSKEEP: Is this, in a way, how you became speaker? Because you - of course, your party captured the House in 2010. It was driven by the Tea Party movement. You make it clear that there are a lot of people in the Tea Party movement that you consider crazies. But at the time, you made sure there was no distance, no gap, between mainstream Republicans and Tea Party types. You knew that was the way to power.

BOEHNER: Well, the fact is they got elected as Republicans. They were members of the Republican conference. And most of those so-called Tea Party candidates became what I would describe as regular Republicans. There were a few who I would describe as knuckleheads who - all they want to do was create chaos. But the fact is they got elected, I was the speaker, and I had to find a way forward as a team.

INSKEEP: What do you think about some of the leading figures in your party, the way that it has gone in recent years?

BOEHNER: Well, the people of governing in Washington today on both sides of the aisle have a even more difficult task than I did. The country is far more polarized, and that means the people trying to govern have an even more difficult time trying to bring two sides together or even, for that matter, bring one side together.

INSKEEP: I get the impression, though, that you think that a lot of leading personalities in your party don't really stand for anything, don't really believe in anything.

BOEHNER: Well, listen; I've been around politics now for 40 years. I thought I knew something about politics, but clearly, today I don't know as much as I thought I knew about politics because, you know, I'm a Republican, actually. I'm a conservative Republican. But I'm not crazy. And then they've got - I don't know - these noisemakers, I'll call them. But Nancy Pelosi's got the same problem on her side of the aisle.

INSKEEP: When you talk about noisemakers, who do you mean? Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan?

BOEHNER: Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan. I can go down a long list of people who are more interested in making noise than they are in doing things on behalf of the country. Sometimes I get the idea that they'd rather tear the whole system down and start over because I've never seen anything that they were for. I know what they're against, but I've never really seen what they're for.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there actually is a difference between the hard-right and the hard-left in this respect. You mentioned progressives. You write about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, a young member of the House from New York. But I wonder if there is a difference in that AOC may have ideas that you consider really unwise and unworkable, but she's actually grasping for ideas; she actually does want to do something.

BOEHNER: That could be a difference. But in terms of the way they act, they're frankly pretty much the same.

INSKEEP: There's a case to be made - and, in fact, even some conservatives make it - that the Republican Party today is abandoning the idea of democracy. So many people supported the effort to overturn the 2020 election. So many state lawmakers now are pushing for voting restrictions based on false claims about that election. What do you make of that argument?

BOEHNER: Well, listen; the election is over. I've listened to all that noise before the election, after the election. And, you know, there's always a few irregularities. But there's really been no - nothing of any significance that would have changed one state's election outcome - not one and nothing even close. And I just find what President Trump did before the election, especially what he did after the election - he really abused the loyalty and trust that his voters and supporters placed in him by continually telling them that the election was going to be stolen before the election and then, after the election, telling them that the election was stolen without providing any evidence, no facts.

And that's the part about this that really disturbs me the most. You know, people who were loyal to me, people who trusted me, I felt like I had a responsibility to be honest with them, straightforward with them. And to see this loyalty and trust be abused by President Trump was really kind of disheartening at best.

INSKEEP: There are a lot of people who worked closely with you who have followed that lead, though. Kevin McCarthy, now the House minority leader, voted to object to the election even after the attack on the Capitol.

BOEHNER: Well, they've got a tough job up there trying to govern and trying to manage their troops. Remember; a leader without followers is just a man taking a walk.

INSKEEP: Last thing - you are really frank about some of your frustrations and failures in this book. But, of course, you're also describing a success. You became speaker of the House. When you look back on all of that. How do you measure your success? And do you consider yourself a success?

BOEHNER: Well, you know, yes, I got elected speaker. I spent five years as speaker - frankly, one year longer than I expected to be. So getting elected speaker is one thing. Holding the party together to the extent that I did, given the chaos we had, frankly, I think was a success - not as successful as I would have liked, but then again, who doesn't have a few regrets?

INSKEEP: John Boehner's memoir is called "On The House." Mr. Speaker, thanks so much.

BOEHNER: Steve, thank you.

INSKEEP: And NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis covered Boehner's entire speakership and was listening to the interview. Sue, what do you make of the leadership style that Boehner describes?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, he paints the portrait of a man who was really brought into power by people he didn't really like or respect that much, and I think that that defined his leadership. He was someone who admits, quite candidly and refreshingly candidly at some points in the book, about all of his failures to move an agenda and that he had to do things he fundamentally didn't believe was the right thing to do because he had no other choice. You know, you talked about the debt crisis, but also on things like immigration or his efforts to reach a grand bargain with former President Barack Obama. It was really a story of failed leadership in so many ways, although so many people still like and did like John Boehner personally. It was a difficult time for him. And I'm not necessarily sure it will be viewed as a story of many legislative successes.

INSKEEP: Is this where a lot of Republican leaders are now - advocating positions that they fundamentally don't believe in?

DAVIS: Well, he certainly seemed to indicate that he believes that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is in the same position that he was. And, you know, McCarthy did criticize the - President Trump after January 6, but quickly walked it back to say he'll be aligned with him to win elections in the future.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks for the analysis. Really appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

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