Conservatives from all across the country gathered in Washington Friday morning for the Values Voter Summit, organized by the social conservative group Family Research Council. The day's speakers were just beginning — indeed some were still stuck in traffic caused by Chinese President Xi Jinping's stay in a nearby hotel — when word spread that House Speaker John Boehner had announced his resignation.
The tone of the day, as far as Boehner was concerned, was set when the first presidential candidate to speak, Marco Rubio, announced the news. The crowd broke into a spontaneous and extended standing ovation.
The news actually fit Rubio's message well, and he worked it into his speech. Denouncing "outdated leaders" and "the political class," Rubio pointed to Republican defeats like the Iran deal and said the situation in the capital has gotten so bad "that people cannot help but ask: how can it be that we sent a Republican majority to Congress, and yet they're still not able to stop our country from sliding in the wrong direction?"
The conservative activists who filled the room would have responded well to that message in any context. And then Rubio continued: "We'll see how things progress. Just a few minutes ago, Speaker Boehner announced that he will be resigning — " The cheers quickly drowned Rubio out.
"It's not about him," Rubio said when the applause subsided. "I'm not here to bash anyone. But the time has come to turn the page."
The next candidate to speak, Ted Cruz, seemed almost giddy at Boehner's departure. Cruz, who has worked closely with conservative rebels in the House, noted that the grassroots conservatives in the crowd had struck fear in the heart of establishment Republicans. "You want to know how much each of you terrifies Washington?" Cruz asked. "Yesterday, John Boehner was Speaker of the House. Y'all come to town and somehow that changes."
The line received a hugely enthusiastic response, to which Cruz added: "My only request is — can you come more often?"
After his speech, Cruz briefly met reporters. "It is my hope that the next Speaker be a strong, principled conservative," Cruz said, "who will honor the commitments we made to the men and women who elected us."
With Boehner in mind, Cruz talked of Republicans who win office and don't keep their promises. Of Boehner specifically, Cruz suggested the outgoing Speaker not only failed to keep promises but is preparing to sell out conservatives on a whole range of issues. "I will say, the early reports are discouraging," Cruz said. "If it is correct that the Speaker, before he resigns, has cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to fund the Obama administration for the rest of its tenure, to fund Obamacare, to fund executive amnesty, to fund Planned Parenthood, to fund implementation of this Iran deal -- and then, presumably, to land in a cushy K Street job after joining with the Democrats to implement all of President Obama's priorities, that is not the behavior one would expect of a Republican Speaker of the House."
At about the same time, Family Research head Tony Perkins was welcoming Boehner's exit. "American voters who put the Republican Party into the majority have grown weary of GOP leaders running into these political battles waving a white flag," Perkins said in a statement. Meanwhile, happiness prevailed onstage. "What a great day to be in Washington, DC," said Citizens United chief David Bossie. "A historic day. What a great day for America."
Amid all the good riddances, two wildly different speakers expressed a somewhat more nuanced view of Boehner. One — Donald Trump — held back from making anything that could be characterized as an attack. The other — Rick Santorum — was a former Boehner colleague who was clearly saddened at his friend's fate.
Trump came onstage with great gusto, but quickly stepped into a mess when he referred to Rubio, with whom he has been feuding lately, as "this clown, Marco Rubio." The crowd didn't like that at all; Trump was hit with extensive booing just minutes into his speech. Three hours earlier, Rubio had stood on the same stage — to a friendly reception — and it's a given that the audience will not react well to one speaker bashing another speaker. Trump learned fast.
But when it came to Boehner, Trump was relatively gentle. "Some people like [Boehner] on a personal basis," Trump said. Still, "we want to see the job being done properly. We want people who can get it done."
Politicians make great promises to get to Washington, Trump continued, echoing both Rubio and Cruz. And then, when they find themselves in the marble halls of the capital, they somehow lose their zeal to keep those promises. "They become different people," Trump said. And that was it; there would be no Boehner bashing from the candidate who has brought the sharpest elbows to the campaign.
Finally, there was Santorum. Back in 1990, Santorum had come to Congress with Boehner and had joined him in the "Gang of Seven" of Republican rebels who exposed the House banking scandal. Washington changed Boehner over the years, Santorum suggested, "and it's probably time for him to step down."
After the speech, Santorum remembered his old colleague. "When I came into Congress, John Boehner was about as tough as nails as anybody I knew," Santorum said. "We didn't back down from a fight…we took on the establishment."
But: "It's hard to keep your edge when you're in Congress," Santorum continued. Lawmakers become distracted by just making things run, losing sight of the higher values they came to Washington to pursue. Santorum didn't say that is what happened to Boehner, but that was his clear meaning.
Asked what he'll remember by, Santorum didn't mention anything Boehner did as Speaker. "I remember him for the 'Gang of Seven,' when he came there and made his mark," Santorum said. "That's the John Boehner I know."