John Boehner’s decision to step down as speaker of the House has created a vacuum in the Republican Party, raising questions about whether the next speaker can avoid the internecine fights that have roiled the House Republican caucus.
In recent years, Boehner has repeatedly relied on Democratic votes to end high-stakes stalemates, including the government shutdown in 2013 and the debt ceiling fight that same year. That cost Boehner support from the conservative wing of his party — leading to talk of a putsch this fall to oust Boehner as leader.
But it’s worth remembering that Boehner is no moderate, at least by historical standards. In fact, he’s more conservative than other recent Republican speakers, including Dennis Hastert and Newt Gingrich.
The trouble, for Boehner, is that while House speakers have been inching to the right, the rest of the party has been racing. Today the average Republican House member is vastly more conservative than in the 1990s or 2000s.
Even with his conservative bona fides, Boehner couldn’t keep up with the rightward swing of his party. To succeed, his successor may have to.
Was Boehner really more conservative than prior House leaders?
Boehner’s voting record is substantially more conservative than either Hastert’s or Gingrich’s, according to the DW-Nominate method used by political scientists (it’s a technique that uses voting patterns — looking at which legislators vote the same way, and which disagree — to map the political spectrum. And it uses the fact that legislators like Boehner and Gingrich actually served together to make direct comparisons over time.)
If this seems hard to square with the Boehner’s less-than-stellar reputation among staunch conservatives — some of whom apparently cheered today when informed of Boehner’s decision — there’s an explanation.
Boehner’s record may be conservative by historical standards, but in the current Congress it looks pretty middling. In fact, he comes out almost exactly in the middle, with half the party to his left and the other half to his right.
What does this mean for the next House speaker?
It may not be enough to inch to the right if your party is leaping that way. And the Republican Party really has made some big leaps over the past few decades, weakening the influence of moderates and boosting the ranks of conservatives.
In the race for a new speaker, one early front-runner seems to be the current House majority leader and second in command, Kevin McCarthy. Yet McCarthy’s voting record is actually less conservative than Boehner’s.
Now, perhaps McCarthy excels in other areas vital to success as a speaker: forging alliances, mastering House rules, and finding workable compromises. But judging from his record alone, it’s hard to see why he would have an easier time speaking for his full party.
This leaves Republicans with a difficult choice. Either they vote for a speaker in the Boehner mold, who will keep conservatives in check and reach out for Democratic help when necessary. Or they elect a speaker who better reflects the rightward drift of the party, even if that raises the risk of a serious political crisis, like a protracted government shutdown.Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz