ON JULY 22, 2011, seated at my desk at Fox News, I received a phone call from the executive producer of “The O’Reilly Factor,” then the nation’s top-rated cable news program. Late in the afternoon, the show had scrambled its rundown to accommodate a surprise VIP guest, freshly booked: Speaker of the House John Boehner.
The burning subject at the time was the debt ceiling. Boehner faced intense criticism from ultra-conservative congressional Republicans, who—theoretically, on fiscal-prudence grounds but more viscerally, to embarrass President Obama—opposed the speaker’s old-school, club-tie, Man-of-the-House efforts to cut a deal with the Democrats that would raise the ceiling and avert a downgrade of Uncle Sam’s credit. Guest host Laura Ingraham, whose sympathies rested with the firebrands, wanted to know if I would come on immediately after Boehner.
While I had been a Washington correspondent for nearly a decade by that point—covering the White House and State Department beats and reporting as well from Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, three-dozen foreign countries, and nearly all fifty states—I had never covered Congress full time, and it dawned on me: I had never met John Boehner. I doubted he would even know my name.
Arriving in the green room at the appointed hour, I saw the speaker sitting by himself. I extended my hand and began to introduce myself. “Mr. Spea-” “James!” he said with a hearty, welcoming tone, suddenly up on his feet and excited. “I really loved your book about John Mitchell!”
I was flabbergasted. The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate was three years old by then, safely out of print. “Watergate was my political initiation,” Boehner continued, “and I thought you handled it”—here the speaker’s hands balanced two imaginary, equally-weighted objects—“really even-handedly.”
We listened as Ingraham delivered the opening monologue and Boehner, swiftly disaffected, turned to ask what topic I was discussing on the show. When I told him, he nodded. After a beat of silence, I said: “If I may be permitted a point of personal privilege, Mr. Speaker, it seems to me that what’s happening right now with the debt ceiling would never have happened in the pre-Watergate period.”
Boehner cocked his head to one side, intrigued. “Prior to the death of the seniority system,” I explained, “junior lawmakers like Michelle Bachman or Jim DeMint”—two of Boehner’s most prominent and media-hungry tormentors in the GOP—“would never have been seen openly challenging their party leadership like we see now.”
Boehner fixed his gaze on me and said: “Welcome to the digital age.” His tone was acid.
“They created all this outta nuthin’,” he spat, hiking his thumb over his shoulder in a nod to the National Mall, recently the site of large, boisterous rallies by the Tea Party and Glenn Beck.
“Bachman…Bachman!” he snorted with contempt. “And DeMint! I used to know DeMint when I was on the [House] education committee!” The speaker relaxed, sat back, and concluded: “I know what I’m dealing with.” And then—less, I got the feeling, to reassure me than himself—he repeated: “I know what I’m dealing with.”
I thought about that conversation, previously unreported, four years later, when an insurgency led by members of the recently formed House Freedom Caucus toppled Boehner from power. The son of an Ohio saloonkeeper, baptized by Watergate, had been nominated unanimously to serve as speaker in 2010; he was re-elected, three years later, by a narrow margin; before the next election, he retired.
That green room talk came to mind again in 2018, after Boehner’s successor as speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan—who only accepted the job on the condition that he receive the endorsement of the Freedom Caucus, an acknowledgment of the insurgents’ growing power—bowed out, like Boehner before him, under pressure from the same forces.
Welcome to the digital age.
Intra-party conflict is strangling America. The erosion of the power held by traditional party hierarchies—embodied in the president, congressional leadership, and the two major party committees—has exerted profoundly negative impacts on our ability to address our national problems, doing damage across the full range of issues and policy portfolios.
At the time of my talk with Boehner, it was fashionable for high-ranking public officials like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to brand certain issues previously considered exclusively the domain of domestic policy, such as the national debt and climate change, as “national security threats”: the better to wake up Americans, seize them of the urgency of long-term trends that might not involve weapons or espionage but still serve, in a dangerous way, to constrain U.S. action on the world stage.
The intervening decade has made clear that the one factor that most inhibits effective U.S. government action—domestically and abroad, on virtually any issue one can name, including the national debt and climate change—is our broken politics.
Every Supreme Court nomination grows bitterer than the last; international accords can be finalized without congressional ratification and torn up by the next president; no foreign military operation, of any scale or duration, enjoys unqualified national support; the “signature” achievement of a White House is rammed through Congress on the strictest of party-line votes, only to be dismantled by the next White House; popular and electoral votes split every decade; impeachments are routine; conspiracy theories, a fringe phenomenon after the Kennedy assassination, pervade our national discourse; protests become riots; debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs recur; government shutdowns last longer; and for the first time since World War II, the Congressional Budget Office reports, the national debt—remember that urgent national security threat?—equals U.S. gross domestic product.
A number of forces got us here: the aforementioned death of the seniority system, a casualty of changes to party nominating rules and other upheavals enacted by a previous generation of insurgents in the early 1970s; the elimination of earmarks, a crude but effective means by which congressional leaders kept back-benchers in line; the widespread attrition of respect for all leaders and institutions, brewing since the “credibility gap” of Vietnam and the Watergate era; the rise of outside political action and spending groups; and, as Boehner noted, the advent of the Internet and particularly social media, the immediacy of which—a bombshell a second—amplifies the most caustic voices and leaves leaders little time to think before they must (re)act.
All of this conspires to produce a situation in which the gridlock of the Clinton-Gingrich era, once the emblem of American political dysfunction, now seems quaint by comparison with the modern age: an era when the Senate could approve President Bill Clinton’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by a vote of ninety-six to three.
The even more intense gridlock of intra-party warfare, practiced programmatically today by groups like the Club for Growth and the Justice Democrats, which catapulted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to elected office and the cover of Vanity Fair, took the old gridlock and pumped it full of steroids. Where the mounting of a primary challenge to an incumbent lawmaker was formerly a rarity, prevented by the near-monopoly the party committees exercised over access to money and messaging, today an aspiring primary candidate can attain 50-50 odds of toppling even the most entrenched incumbent through a combination of good looks, a GoFundMe page, backing from a powerful outside group, or a viral video.
“The only election that most members care about is their own primary,” Brendan Buck, a former counselor to Speaker Ryan, told me in a recent interview. “What that ends up cultivating is an incentive structure in which you are more likely to be rewarded for being against your own party, demonstrating that you are to the right or to the left of leadership, depending on where you are, rather than finding any type of solution.”
Neither party is immune. The current speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, has faced her own version of the Freedom Caucus, in the form of The Squad and other emboldened junior members of her rank-and-file. The collective time in office of these voluble lawmakers amounts, in relative terms, to ten minutes when compared to Pelosi’s vaunted experience, and their brand of progressivism is sufficient to outflank Pelosi: the Republicans’ favorite symbol, for two decades, of the San Franciscan far Left.
Recall that it was in May 2019 that the speaker, already under fire from progressives to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, buckled to the pressure and, citing Book II of the Mueller Report, declared that she believed the president had indeed committed impeachable offenses—but still said she did not support impeachment. This posture contorted Pelosi into a pretzel shape, for how could the speaker of the House—a guarantor of our laws—assert a chief executive to be guilty of impeachable offenses but not recommend the activation of the mechanism the Framers designed for just such cases? It amounted to an abdication.
That September, after four months of mounting pressure from her left flank, Pelosi—by then citing the president’s infamous phone call to his counterpart in Ukraine—finally announced her support for impeachment, untying the pretzel at last.