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Speaker Boehner’s Nunc Dimittis

Walter Russell Mead

The big news out of Washington today is that Rep. John Boehner, the oft-embattled GOP Speaker of the House, is stepping down. The NYT reports:

Mr. Boehner, who was first elected to Congress in 1990, made the announcement in an emotional meeting with his fellow Republicans on Friday morning.

“The first job of any speaker is to protect this institution that we all love,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement released later. “It was my plan to only serve as speaker until the end of last year, but I stayed on to provide continuity to the Republican conference and the House. It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution. To that end, I will resign the speakership and my seat in Congress on Oct. 30.”

There will be plenty of loose talk about this news; young guns both right and left will be on it like chickens on a June bug. There will be hot takes and speculation about which GOP faction wins, what this means about the direction of American politics, what it says about the state of the nation, and so on.

Unfortunately, the boring truth is the political impact of this shift is likely to be minimal. In the history of the United States, there have been a lot of House Speakers. How many times do you remember reading historians write about how the departure of one of them led to or represented an important change in American politics. Speakers come and go all the time. They rise, they do their best (however good or bad that might be), and then they turn into filthy rich lobbyists. Boehner is about to move the decimal one point to the right in his salary.

But if the move means little in the overall sweep of U.S. political history, Boehner himself is having a kind of Nunc Dimittis moment—an ending to his time as Speaker that is reminiscent of Simeon’s story (Luke 2:29-32) in which an old man, having seen the Messiah, informs God that he can depart this world in peace.

The Pope has just concluded a high-profile, highly successful state visit, including an address to a Joint Session of Congress, that the Speaker, a devout Catholic, orchestrated. Boehner hasn’t been beaten, and his party has a majority in both houses of Congress. What better moment to hang out a shingle on K street? And a fascinating short report in the Washington Post by Robert Costas suggests that this is the way Boehner has been seeing things, too.

Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in failure. In America, they don’t have to anymore: You pick the right moment and cash in your chips. Boehner exited on a high note: in control of his caucus, with the Papal visit under his belt. He’s ready to ascend to a higher, happier—and much better-paying—realm.

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