Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History

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First, Gingrich was booted from the House entirely when his fellow Republicans removed him from his speakership in 1998 after a disastrous midterm election cycle. "I'm willing to lead," Gingrich wailed, "but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals." Then, in 2005, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the true malicious power behind the inert Speaker Dennis Hastert, was indicted on felony charges (later dropped) involving corporate campaign contributions and resigned his post in disgrace. In a surprise win over another unexceptional wheeler-dealer, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, Boehner took over as majority leader, partly because he was so unthreatening. Finally, in the Democratic sweep of 2006, Hastert lost his leadership role in the party. Boehner became minority leader, which in turn put him in line to become speaker when the Republicans regained the House in 2010.

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Boehner is a remainderman, the last figure from the Gingrich revolution left standing. In the absence of anyone with flair or talent, he rose to the heights with no virtue greater than his ability to hang around. And now, as speaker, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a momentous political crisis.

The speakership, historically, has offered an excellent opportunity for creative lawmakers to shape the politics of their times. Between 1811 and 1825, Henry Clay, the greatest speaker of all, transformed what had been essentially a rule-enforcer's job into a position second in importance only to the president, concentrating power in his own hands by appointing his allies to the most important committees. Having put political pressure on the more pacific President James Madison, Clay helped lead the nation through the War of 1812 and then through the early implementation of a sweeping national economic plan, which he devised and called the American System. He also brokered the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that calmed sectional furor over slavery for more than 30 years.

Several powerful men have followed in Clay's footsteps. "Uncle" Joe Cannon sternly ruled the Republican-dominated House for eight momentous years between 1903 and 1911, greatly augmenting the power of his "Old Guard" Republican faction and stifling legislation proposed by Theodore Roosevelt's Progressives. Sam Rayburn, the Democrat of Texas, held the job for 20 years with two brief interruptions, under presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; and with a firm but generous hand, he worked effectively with conservatives as well as liberals. Most recently the affable old-time Massachusetts liberal Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill held the House Democrats together during the lean years of the 1980s and struck up a strong and productive relationship, political and personal, with Ronald Reagan.

As a matter of history, Boehner is the most pathetic figure ever to serve as speaker of the House. Questioned last month about why he let right-wing members of his caucus overrule his own crucial – and publicly announced – decision to keep Obamacare out of the budget negotiations, Boehner could only reply that there were many points of view inside the Republican caucus and that "the key to any leadership job is to listen." Henry Clay, who could not only listen but also speak eloquently, would scoff at Boehner's withered definition of leadership. Days into the shutdown, Boehner reportedly told colleagues that he would prevent a default – an uncommon show of firmness. But those reports also raised questions about how long he could command the loyalty of his caucus.

If Boehner is the saddest speaker of the House in American history, the current Congress is among the lowest of the low. And while there have been numerous terrible Congresses, the closest parallel in our past had been the relatively obscure 46th Congress in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction. Then, the Democrats were the Southern conservative party. Otherwise, the similarities between now and then are striking. So are the lessons that an old and mostly forgotten history can teach the present about how the executive branch should deal with a tightly organized extremist faction in Congress.

A financial panic in 1873 had led to an earthquake in the midterm elections the following year, costing the Republicans control of the House for the first time since the Civil War. Lacking an effective leadership, the Democrats had few ideas about how to combat the economic difficulties. Their entire agenda amounted to rousing their white Southern base's resentment against the Republicans' efforts to protect black voting rights.

In the so-called Compromise of 1877, Republicans won a disputed presidential election by agreeing to remove all but a token number of federal troops sent to guarantee civil rights – but even that mostly symbolic presence, along with the presence and power of U.S. marshals, continued to infuriate Southern Democrats. In the spring of 1879, with the Democrats still controlling the House, Congress passed routine appropriations bills to fund the army and the rest of the federal government for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1st. Seeing their opportunity, Southern Democrats attached riders to the bills that forbade the use of troops and U.S. marshals to keep order at Southern polls. Though the Democrats were not threatening a default on the public debt, there were clear affinities between that Southern-based party and today's Republicans. Pushed by its extremist wing, the party threatened to shut down the federal government – and defund the army – to secure the extremists' narrow political interests.

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As it turned out, the sitting Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, did not care much about protecting black voters in the South – but he and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill recognized the Democrats' blackmail for what it was, an attack on the fundamental American system of checks and balances. Five times the Democrats passed offensive bills, and five times Hayes rejected them, using the full powers of his office and denouncing the doctrine behind the Democratic threats – a doctrine, he said, that would "make a radical, dangerous and unconstitutional change in the character of our institutions." After a legislative impasse of more than three months, when public opinion moved sharply against them, the Democrats backed down. Defeated by a president who had become strong as well as principled, they soon ceased their mayhem.

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