John Boehner Just Sits There

Upon hearing Desilene Victor's dramatic story about voting rights, he should've cheered. He didn't. Which tells us what we need to know about today's GOP.

Three days later, and I still can’t believe John Boehner just sat there.

It was toward the end of President Obama’s State of the Union speech—and believe me, I understand it was a long, dry, energy-sapping affair. Still, there the president was closing his speech with some inspirational stories about inspirational Americans, and he came to this one:

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”

You know who else cheered? Congress, when it heard Desiline Victor’s story. Except for John Boehner. He … just sat there. And after the cheering persisted, he gave a few half-hearted claps.

And in that moment, Boehner—the GOP’s senior elected official in federal government—made it plain to the country that his party doesn’t even pretend to care about voting rights.

Instead, John Boehner just sat there.

Three days later—even though we really should’ve moved on from the State of the Union by now—that still rankles.

I’m a liberal who has, I think, a fair number of conservative friends. Admittedly, their philosophy is sometimes tempting: Big government can produce stifling bureaucracy! Overtaxation can strangle an economy! New laws and social programs really can have ironic and unintended consequences. Sometimes, more money won’t fix a broken government program! These are all insights that liberals could take more seriously, sometimes.

But philosophy isn’t enough. Values matter. And I can’t help but take the side of liberals, mostly, where values are concerned.

Liberals believe that voting is a fundamental democratic (small “d”) right. Republicans are trying to make it harder for Democrats to vote—whether through ID laws like the one passed in Pennsylvania last year, new attempts to gerrymander the Electoral College to produce GOP presidencies even when Dem candidates have won the most popular votes, and so forth. One set of values tries to make democracy work; the other one warps and bends it. I know which set of values seems superior to me.

And John Boehner just sat there.

I wish he’d stood, wish he’d done so if he didn’t really mean it, because hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. Faking a respect for voting rights—and for a 102-year-old woman who persisted in exercising those rights in a clearly broken and dysfunctional system—would show you more broad respect for the system, would be less troubling for the future of the country.

After all: If one side believe in voting rights and the other side believes, well, only in winning—if they can’t accept that they’ll be on the losing side of the democratic process once in awhile—well, we’re in trouble. If half of Americans can’t buy the system, or its fairness, the system won’t survive.

That’s a problem that requires leadership to fix. But John Boehner? He just sits there.