James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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John Boehner’s Big Day

by James M. Lindsay
January 5, 2011

House Republican Leader Boehner during a press conference in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2010.

House Republican Leader Boehner during a press conference in Washington, DC, on November 18, 2010. (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters)

John Boehner becomes the sixty-first Speaker of the House today, and the first from Ohio since Nicholas Longworth stepped down in 1931. Like Longworth, Boehner hails from Cincinnati. He no doubt hopes to inspire the same kind of admiration that Longworth did—one of the House office buildings bears his name. But Speaker Boehner has one tough job ahead of him.

Boehner gets a lot of ribbing for his permanent tan, his obsession with golf, and his penchant for crying on cue. Condescension runs through many of the jibes, as if people cannot believe that the son of a barkeep is up to the job. But Boehner has been savvy in his handling of the Republicans’ sweeping victory on November 2. Take his assessment of the “mandate” that the GOP received in the midterms:

What I got out of the election is not so much that we won but they lost.

Boehner has also avoided sharp partisan rhetoric, unlike his counterpart on the Senate side, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And as is befitting tough economic times, he has passed on gala events of the sort that his predecessors attended to celebrate their elevation to the speakership.

All this suggests that Boehner understands two things. First, the White House would love for him to repeat the mistakes Newt Gingrich made when he became speaker in 1995. Blatant partisanship and self-aggrandizement would help President Obama reclaim the sympathies of the independent voters he has lost over the past two years. Second, the American public expects Boehner to work with Obama to solve their problems. The polls make it clear: voters aren’t upset with just Democratic members, they are upset with Congress more generally.

Disappointing the White House and pleasing voters should be an easy play for Boehner. Except for the fact that he also has to keep his fellow Republicans happy. Squaring that circle will be difficult. One problem is that many House Republicans didn’t come to Washington to compromise with President Obama. As Rep. Jim Jordan, another Ohio Republican, put it:

Nov. 2 wasn’t about working with the president, it’s about stopping him.

A good chunk of the eighty-seven new House Republican members, most of whom proudly proclaim themselves products of the Tea Party movement, feel exactly the same way. They may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into recognizing that campaigning is one thing, governing another.

Boehner is taking several symbolic steps that will allow Tea Partiers to claim victories. He has added several Tea Partiers to his leadership team, arranged for the Constitution to be read aloud on the House floor tomorrow, trimmed the House’s own budget, and scheduled a vote to repeal the health-care bill. (The repeal motion will go nowhere in the Senate.) These steps may help down the road when he asks Tea Partiers to walk back some of their more extreme promises.

Boehner will also have his hands full with the rest of the House Republican leadership. Several of them look to be spoiling for a fight with the White House. Paul Ryan, the new House Budget Committee chair from Wisconsin, has been open about his desire to push for major policy changes:

I am so sick of playing small ball.

And some of Boehner’s lieutenants may be eying his job. Boehner knows from personal experience that speakers who lose touch with their caucus can be dumped. He was on the losing end of an effort to depose Gingrich, a failure that led to his being bounced from the House Republican leadership team for a time.

So Boehner has some tough political dynamics to master. The next six months will tell just how savvy the man from Cincinnati is.

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