John Boehner Thinks The Republican Party Has Changed. Has It? : The NPR Politics Podcast In a new memoir, the former Republican House Speaker says that even Ronald Reagan couldn't get elected in today's GOP. He decries obstructionist tactics used by Republicans, while acknowledging his role in pioneering them.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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John Boehner Thinks The Republican Party Has Changed. Has It?

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John Boehner Thinks The Republican Party Has Changed. Has It?

John Boehner Thinks The Republican Party Has Changed. Has It?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/986553852/986560589" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GABBY: Hi, everyone. My name is Gabby (ph), and I just got inaugurated to student body vice president at my university. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's 2:06 Eastern on Monday, April 12.

GABBY: Things may have changed by the time you've heard this, but I'll still be carrying out my first few days in my PJs.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Congratulations.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I wonder what the first 100 days agenda looks like for her.

DETROW: It's a big question. We can follow it closely on this podcast.

LIASSON: Change into sweatpants.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: So John Boehner has a new book out about his time in Washington. It's somewhat spicy, so we're going to talk about it today. Boehner was, of course, the speaker of the House from 2011 until he announced his surprise retirement in 2015. He told NPR's Morning Edition this morning that he is not sure he could get elected again today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP: Do you really think that if you were running for office today in the Republican Party, you couldn't get elected?

JOHN BOEHNER: Oh, I think I'd have a pretty tough time. You know, like I said, I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy.

DETROW: So, Sue, let's start with some background. Boehner's retirement happened just before we launched this podcast and, I think, was actually a deciding factor in getting us to start a politics podcast. You, around then, did an exit interview with Boehner when he announced his retirement. Why did he leave?

DAVIS: You know, I will never forget Boehner retiring because it was my first week at NPR.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: And I always remember it because it was like fumbling to learn how to use radio equipment. And we had this...

DETROW: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Like, huge breaking news story on my beat on, like, Day 5, so I will never, ever forget it.

DETROW: Surprise.

DAVIS: He quit in a very memorable fashion the day after he had invited Pope Francis to come and address Congress for the first time. He's a Catholic. This was a big, momentous night for him. And then the day after, they had a Republican conference meeting, and he went in and just announced that he was stepping down. And when I spoke to Boehner in 2015, after he announced his decision to leave, he acknowledged the hardships of the job and how it was a - quite a lonely one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOEHNER: This is the loneliest place in the world, almost as lonely as the president's. It took me a long time to realize this. What you find here is that, yeah, you have a lot of people coming in and coming out, but you're away from your friends. You're away from your family, and it's a lonely place.

DAVIS: It was his own choice, right? He did it on his own accord, but there had been a movement afoot by many of the people he discusses in his memoir who were trying to oust him or at least try to force him to be more conservative. It was this constant point of conflict between his leadership and the rank and file over the agenda and the future of the party. And ultimately, Boehner just decided that he wasn't the guy to lead them, and he walked away.

DETROW: Mara, before we get into how John Boehner would like himself to be remembered as speaker, how do you remember John Boehner as speaker? What matters six years since Boehner retired?

LIASSON: I remember John Boehner just struggling to lead his conference. It was really hard. As a matter of fact, at one point in the interview with Steve Inskeep, he talked about when Republicans moved him in a direction that he didn't want to go. He said, well, they were the ones who elected me to be leader. I had an obligation to go lead them, so that means I have to go jump out in front of them, even if I thought what they were trying to do didn't make a whole lot of sense. So it often seemed that Boehner was an uncomfortable speaker.

DETROW: Sue, you read this book. You reviewed this book. A big chunk of this book, at least the portions that are making their way into reviews and articles about it, is Boehner being pretty blunt and angry at some of these lawmakers, the way that they approached governing and how he had to deal with them.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, he clearly has a real disdain for what have now become some of the leading voices in the party. He traces it sort of to the rise of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Obviously, this is also the movement that put him into power, that won a majority in the House, so there was always this uneasy alliance. And he name-checks a lot of the people he doesn't like and, quite frankly, doesn't respect - people like Jim Jordan, who is a Republican from Ohio who's now the top Republican on the judiciary committee, Ted Cruz from Texas - although a lot of Republicans over the years have criticized Ted Cruz, but Boehner really lays into him in his memoir - and people like Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff and a member of Congress, who was one of those members agitating for Boehner to get out of the speakership. And he also name-checked them again in the interview with Morning Edition today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOEHNER: Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan - I can go down a long list of people who are more interested in making noise than they are in doing things on behalf of the country. Now, sometimes, I get the idea that they'd rather tear the whole system down and start over because I've never seen anything that they were for. I know what they're against, but I've never really seen what they're for.

DAVIS: Boehner's conflict with members like this - and this is a core tension that he recalls in his book - is that, you know, he was a legislator. He really saw the purpose of the Congress, and what his job was was to move the ball forward. Even if it was requiring compromise or incremental change, he saw those things as fundamentally good things. And this class of lawmakers came in as sort of anti-government revolutionaries who, in his words, just would rather blow everything up and tear it down and start all over than ever give an inch with Democrats. And he, in his view, as he writes it, this is a really poisonous way to govern and a poisonous way to treat government. And, you know, he really doesn't spare them any sympathy. I think that he thinks that members like that are the reason why we, as we talk about all the time on this podcast, how divided and partisan and unproductive Congress has come. He pretty much points his finger directly at people like that.

DETROW: And so, Mara, my question to you is, you know, John Boehner clearly had this long career as a deal-cutter before he became speaker, right? And it seems like there is clearly a calculation here to try to disassociate himself from this trend line of what has happened to the Republican Party, at least in Congress. I mean, one of the dynamics we talk a lot about this year is that the Biden administration just does not see that many, if any, Republicans in Congress as good-faith negotiators on the topic of governing the country, right? Doesn't John Boehner, as the speaker at the time that this all came into place, bear some responsibility for that?

LIASSON: Well, absolutely. And a lot of the - you could call them reviews that come from the Democratic side or the left are pointing this out. Like, hey, you were there. You know, there's a joke that most Washington memoirs have only three titles - "I Was There Too," "If Only They'd Listen To Me" or "My Boss Was A Joke" (ph).

DAVIS: (Laughter).

DETROW: Which one is this?

LIASSON: Well, this is a kind of mixture of all three. But what I think is the most interesting thing about this book is that it's written after Boehner's political career is over. The worst kind of Washington books are written when somebody still sees a political future for themselves. So he's pretty candid about his failures to pass legislation in this book, and I thought that was interesting. But in terms of one party, the Republican Party, pretty much giving up on the idea of governance, John Boehner is really heartbroken about that. And I think it's a bad thing for the United States.

DAVIS: I think that's totally right. And it is refreshing to read a politician be sort of candid about themselves. And Mara's right; you don't normally get that. The thing I also thought about in this book, though, too, is it does also speak to sort of the cynicism of our time because Boehner admits freely that so many times, he led the party in a direction that he thought was wrong, that was actually bad for the country, but he had no choice because that's where the rank and file were. And I don't think that that speaks to sort of our better angels of political leadership, but it was candid and frank for someone to admit that that's exactly what their political strategy was, maybe the driving political strategy of their speakership.

LIASSON: There's not a day that goes by now in Washington where you don't see example after example of exactly what Sue was talking about. You know, Kevin McCarthy gives a tough speech about President Trump's responsibility. The next day, he has to scurry up to the head of the parade and grab the flag, and he walks it back. You know, Boehner says several times a leader without followers is just a man taking a walk, even if his followers are pushing him in the wrong direction.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll talk more about this when we get back.

We are back. Sue, a few things - first of all, I've been dwelling the whole time that the Boehner surprise retirement was six years ago because that was also my first week at NPR. Now it feels like 600 years ago.

DAVIS: (Laughter) Yet we haven't aged a day, Scott.

DETROW: Nope. I want to do a real quick lightning round with you since you were our in-house reviewer of this book, and I'm just curious how Boehner writes about how candid he is about a few key people in this book and if anything jumped out from the passages. First of all, President Trump - because the trend lines he is talking about and criticizing are trend lines that clearly were exacerbated by the former president.

DAVIS: Yeah. He opens his book with a recollection of Donald Trump which was before he was even running for office. He knew him just because, you know, Trump had been involved in politics. He was a donor. He liked to golf, and he had invited Boehner out on a golf trip with him. And in it, he recounts how Trump was essentially really mean to a staffer who played a role as a caddy on the course for them. And he yelled at him and just gave him a horrible time. And Boehner writes that he always judged people on sort of, like, their behavior on the golf course, and this told him everything he needed to know about Donald Trump. And he has a line about, like, he had no clue how he would unleash that anger on the country and what it would do to the country. It's kind of like a classic Boehner thing where he seems like he likes Donald Trump, like he'd probably go play another 18 rounds of golf with him. But it's pretty clear he thinks he was a bad president and a bad person.

And in the end of the book, which clearly he wrote to include - because I'm sure the book was pretty much written at the time of the January 6 insurrection. He made a point to include in there that he saw Trump as directly responsible for the events of January 6. And further, all the Republicans in Congress who either supported lawsuits or voted to overturn Electoral College results were part of that action of really undermining the government, and he thinks all of it was quite bad and quite damning for the party and for the country.

DETROW: How does he treat Barack Obama? - because he's criticizing the way that so many members of his caucus stonewalled everything the former president tried to do. How did he write about his own meetings and interactions with Obama?

DAVIS: I think that his interactions with Obama are probably his greatest regret because he saw them as his greatest opportunity. For those of us who lived through it, there was a time where John Boehner and Barack Obama were trying to come up with something that was called the grand bargain, which was an effort to kind of put the country back on a fiscal path of sanity - combination of spending cuts and entitlement reform and tax increases. And they had worked behind the scenes in secret and private meetings at the White House, where Boehner's taking smoke breaks outside, and Obama and him are just the two in the room.

DETROW: Maybe Obama was too.

DAVIS: No, he says Obama never did. He discloses that in the book that Obama would eye his cigarettes sometimes, but he never asked for one. And he thought - Boehner thought, in his recollection, that they got real close. He thought they had a handshake agreement. And in his telling, the president walked away. And what I think is interesting about it is Boehner writes that he knew that if they had cut a deal with Obama, it could have cost him his leadership. It might have forced him out of Congress, but it was something he was willing to do. If he could have gotten that bill done, he would have quit or been allowed himself to be thrown out because he thought it would have been impactful enough for the country. So I think, again, a lot of recurring themes of this, of his time in power is just missed opportunity and legislative failure.

DETROW: Mara, I'm wondering, like, you know, we're talking about how Boehner is taking all these pot shots at people like Ted Cruz and Jim Jordan. But clearly, like, that is where the mentality is with so many congressional Republicans. And I keep saying congressional because, I think, you know, it's a different dynamic in different levels of government. But do you see any world where kind of the John Boehner deal-cutter's governance - you know, let's put together compromise bills - returns to Congress any time in the foreseeable future?

LIASSON: Well, not in the near term. But if Republicans lose another election or another two elections, then maybe yes. The times when you had the best kind of deal-making is when there was a party that was clearly a minority party, and we don't have that right now. We have a Republican Party that even if it has, as John Boehner said, lost interest in governance, it is very confident about its ability to get both houses of Congress back in 2022. So right now, for them, for Republicans, not a lot of political incentives to compromise with Biden. But I think it would also take both parties being coalitions. Right now you have one party, the Democratic Party, who's a broader coalition. They have to run in swing districts. And then you have the Republican Party, which is pretty homogenous and for the most part, comes from red states or red House districts. So it's really hard to see, what are the big forces that would get both of these parties back to the bargaining table on a regular basis?

DETROW: All right. That is a wrap for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow. And if you want to hear more from John Boehner himself, you can go to npr.org and hear the extended interview that he did with Morning Edition today.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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