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Opinion | Eric Fehrnstrom

Boehner and the Year of the Outsider

House Speaker John Boehner announced Friday he would be resigning at the end of October.Jacquelyn Martin/AP

When news of John Boehner’s resignation first broke, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was on stage in a hotel ballroom at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., an important stop for Republican presidential candidates. As he matter-of-factly reported that Boehner was stepping down, the crowd suddenly stood on its feet and burst out in wild applause.

Welcome to the Year of the Outsider. It just claimed its first victim. If I were Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, I’d be demanding loyalty oaths from the members of my caucus.

As if we needed to be reminded, the outsider dynamic is the strongest force in American politics today. Why? Americans look around and see that everything is broken. They think our politics are corrupt, the nation’s foreign policy is inept, the treasury is going bankrupt, and we are defenseless against uncontrolled immigration. They want to return to normal and see no obvious path there — except to completely upend the political system.

This frustration and hopelessness vaulted Donald Trump to the top of the polls, against the predictions of everyone. Yes, he’s unorthodox and unpredictable and sometimes unstable, but voters are willing to overlook his shortcomings because in him they see a human depth charge that will explode Washington into finally paying attention. When Americans in record numbers tuned into the first two Republican debates, they realized Trump wasn’t the only outsider in the race, and now Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are sharing the center ring.


This is why pundits and pollsters who try to anticipate where this race is going don’t know what they’re talking about. All the conventional wisdom has turned out to be wrong. We’re like Magellan in uncharted waters.

Unpredictability is the downside for the Republican presidential candidates, all of whom will salute the forces at work in our politics by hailing the “turning of the page” that Boehner’s resignation represents.


But is it really what they want?

Candidates hate unpredictability. When the government looked like it was careening toward a government shutdown in 2011, I was working on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Nothing gave us more fits than trying to respond to the fickle uncertainty of what was unfolding on Capitol Hill. A shutdown was avoided that year, but uppermost in our minds was the 1995 shutdown with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in charge. Adverse public reaction sealed President Clinton’s reelection the next year.

Now congressional Republicans are about to go to the mat over Planned Parenthood. The recent undercover videos are disturbing, but McConnell is right: Without a president who will go along with cutting off public funding, a showdown will lead to a shutdown, and that will be politically disastrous.

Here’s how a perceptive Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana put it: “If there was a one in 1,000 chance to shut down what Planned Parenthood is doing by shutting down the government, I would support it. But with this president, it simply isn’t possible.’’

Usually, the Democratic response in a situation like this is to accuse Republicans of not caring about women’s health. Hillary Clinton might possibly be responsible for a national security breach that would make Edward Snowden blush. For all the problems she’s having trying to revive her floundering campaign, do Republicans really want to throw her a lifeline?


When the great explorer Magellan attempted his circumnavigation of the globe back in the 16th century, he underestimated the span of the ocean and landed on an island in the Philippines, where he was murdered by restless natives. Let’s hope the Republicans meet a different fate.

Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst, media strategist, and former senior adviser to former Governor Mitt Romney.