Who did John Boehner represent? Conservatives thought he was a sellout. Liberals thought he was a lightweight. His own deputies (first Eric Cantor, then Kevin McCarthy) disrespected him; his caucus was totally out of his control. He didn’t have any particular juice back home in Ohio. If he had a constituency at all, it was the ever-more-powerless Beltway Establishment, its own isolated and isolating club. For a man whose position—speaker of the House—bespoke power, he often seemed like the loneliest man in American politics.
So it was fitting that, when Boehner announced his retirement on Friday, it was a decision he had made in solitude. He had consulted no one; he had told only his wife and his chief of staff. McCarthy, the odds-on next speaker, got a two-minute heads up. The rest of Washington, and the country, was blindsided.
Before he became a congressman, Boehner was a blue-collar Ohioan. He started as a salesman and rose to president of a plastics company. (The second of 12 children, he must have spent his childhood overseeing a houseful of less mature beings, a situation with obvious parallels to his eventual position.) He was frank and profane, liable to break into tears out of joy or despair, and incapable of maintaining a poker face. He ate breakfast every morning at the same Capitol Hill diner. When he went home to Cincinnati, he cut his own grass. He liked his cigarettes, a nice Merlot, golf, good suits (and making fun of other people’s). He believed in the Chamber of Commerce’s agenda: More immigration, less Social Security—the opposite of Trumpism, and a philosophy with very little popular support outside of K Street. Boehner was a sort of Everyman of American Capitalism; his resignation can be seen, in part, as the ultimate frustration of the GOP's status-quo-oriented business wing, which has funded the party to ever greater legislative success only to see its priorities ignored in favor of attention-getting brinkmanship.