John Boehner says he couldn't win an election as a Republican these days.
"I think I'd have a pretty tough time," he says. "I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy. And, you know, these days crazy gets elected. On the left and the right."
Boehner has a new memoir, “On the House,” about his time in politics.
His refrain is familiar — a retired politician bemoaning increased polarization and partisanship, laying the blame squarely on both parties — though as a member of House Republican leadership for much of his career, he has more experience and more stories about dealing with the "noisemakers" and "knuckleheads" within his own ranks.
Boehner was first elected to the House in 1990 as a firebrand conservative from Ohio, rising to become House speaker with the help of Republican Tea Party victories in the 2010 midterms. Until his retirement in 2015, he led a Republican caucus largely focused on undoing former President Barack Obama's signature health care overhaul — even if it meant shutting down the government.
Boehner's memoir tells of his attempts through the years to corral his members. As he tells Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition, often that meant going in directions he personally opposed.
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He relates the situations to one of his folksy sayings — "Boehnerisms" — that says, "A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk."
"There were a couple of times where I found myself taking a walk. And I was going one direction, the team was going some other direction," Boehner says.
One of those times came in 2013, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other hard-line Republicans forced a government shutdown in a failed attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.
"And even though I didn't really want to go the direction where the team's going, they were the ones who elected me to be the leader and I had an obligation to go lead them," Boehner tells NPR. "So that means I had to go jump out in front of them, even if I thought what they were trying to do really made not a whole lot of sense."
Boehner's retirement in 2015 allowed him to avoid working with former President Donald Trump in the White House. By the time of Trump's swearing in, Boehner writes that he was "not sure I belonged to the Republican Party he created."
Boehner tells NPR that when Trump refused to accept his election loss, "he really abused the loyalty and trust that his voters and supporters placed in him."
Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
You describe the way that you ran meetings when you were speaker of the House or really in any leadership position. You say that the key thing was to listen to other people and figure out what was on their minds and which way the room was going.
Well, I was in the sales and marketing business before I got into politics and learned a few things about sales. The most important thing about a salesman is not his ability or her ability to talk. It's their ability to listen. Because if you're listening to the person across the desk, you have a pretty good idea what it is they're looking for and you can figure out a way to get there.
And no different in politics, because in politics — especially in the Congress — you've got this large body of people that you're trying to move in a particular direction. You really can't even begin to move them until you understand where they are and why they are where they are.
Your party captured the House in 2010. It was driven by the Tea Party movement. You make it clear that there are a lot of people in the Tea Party movement that you consider "crazies." But at the time, you made sure there was no distance, no gap between mainstream Republicans and Tea Party types. You knew that was the way to power.
Well, the fact is they got elected as Republicans, they were members of the Republican conference and most of those so-called Tea Party candidates became what I would describe as regular Republicans. There were a few who I would describe as knuckleheads who all they want to do is create chaos. But the fact is they got elected. I was the speaker and I had to find a way forward as a team.
What do you think about some of the leading figures in your party, the way that it has gone in recent years?
Well, the people of governing in Washington today on both sides of the aisle have an even more difficult task than I did. The country is far more polarized now than it was 10, 12 years ago. And that means the people trying to govern have an even more difficult time trying to bring two sides together, or for that matter bring one side together.
I get the impression, though, that you think that a lot of leading personalities in your party don't really stand for anything, don't really believe in anything.
Well, listen, I've been around politics now for 40 years, and I thought I knew something about politics. But clearly today, I don't know as much as I thought I knew about politics. Because, you know, I'm a Republican, actually. I'm a conservative Republican, but I'm not crazy. And then they've got, I don't know, these noisemakers, I'll call them. But Nancy Pelosi's got the same problem on her side of the aisle.
When you talk about noisemakers, who do you mean? Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan?
Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan. I could 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. 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.
There's a case to be made that the Republican Party today is abandoning the idea of democracy. So many people supported the effort to overturn the 2020 election. So many state lawmakers now are pushing for voting restrictions based on false claims about that election. What do you make of that argument?
Listen, the election is over. I listened to all that noise before the election, after the election. And, you know, there's always a few irregularities, but there's really been nothing of any significance that would have changed one state's election outcome, not one. Nothing even close.
I just find what President Trump did before the election, especially what he did after the election, he really abused the loyalty and trust that his voters and supporters placed in him by continually telling them that the election was going to be stolen before the election. And then after the election, telling them that the election was stolen without providing any evidence, no facts. And that's the part about this that really disturbs me the most.
People who were loyal to me, people who trusted me, I felt like I had a responsibility to be honest with them, straightforward with them. And to see this loyalty and trust be abused by President Trump, it was really kind of disheartening at best.
Bo Hamby and Reena Advani produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Web.
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