Boehner's job: recapture 'squandered' GOP brand

Salena Zito

5/10/2009 12:00:15 AM - Salena Zito

WASHINGTON -- John Boehner says it was at his family's tavern in Cincinnati that he learned all the skills he needs for his job as House minority leader.

“Great food. Great people. I did dishes. I waited tables. I tended bar. … You learn real quick how to deal with the jackass that walks in the door,” Boehner says during an interview in his office in the Capitol.

Boehner, 59, is the 21st minority leader of the House, elected by the GOP caucus in January 2007. A representative of Ohio's 8th Congressional District, Boehner won election in 1990 on the cusp of the Republican Revolution.

On both sides of the aisle, Boehner earns praise for candor and an ability to listen.

"I not only consider Boehner a friend, but I also admire his fairness and accessibility,” says Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Forest Hills.

Doyle recounts the time he called then-Majority Leader Boehner with a request: “Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O’Connor had just passed away. I wanted to have the House pass a resolution to honor the mayor for his family and the city.”

As leader, Boehner controlled motions scheduled to be voted upon, and he told Doyle he'd see what he could do. A couple days later, Doyle was on the House floor, holding the signed, sealed and delivered resolution honoring O’Connor.

The tide has turned, and Boehner finds himself relegated to being in charge of the minority.

"Being minority leader is a terribly hard job to be good at,” says Steve Elmendorf, longtime chief of staff to former Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who served as majority and minority leader over his career. “You basically have to go out and lose every day. It is pretty brutal.”

And indeed, lose -- primarily on budget issues and the economic stimulus package -- is what Boehner and Republicans have done through the first 100-plus days of the Obama administration.

So, what does Boehner think of the new president and the new Congress so far?

“I’ve been shocked. I knew we were going to have a new Democrat president and a bigger Democrat Congress,” Boehner says, “but I would never have guessed that we’d see an $800 billion stimulus bill that had almost nothing to do with stimulating the economy.”

Boehner calls the stimulus “wasteful government spending” enhanced “with 9,000 earmarks that nobody had ever seen before.

“And if all that isn’t bad enough, then we have this budget proposal that has on average trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see. ... This is scary stuff.”

Yet he concedes it was Republican spending that has left the party on the brink of irrelevance -- which makes his job of selling the GOP brand and policies difficult.

“Clearly, we made our share of mistakes going back four, five, six years ago,” Boehner says. “It is why we lost the ’06 and ’08 elections. We spent too much, and we didn’t deal with some of our member problems or manage them quickly and swiftly enough.

“You have to remember while I may think that we spent too much, they always wanted to spend more -- always.”

Boehner says he has to show people that conservatives are serious about fiscal discipline. “It’s a big part of our brand, and it got squandered.”

By his own account, Boehner is an "accidental congressman," especially the Republican part.

“I grew up as a Democrat. I’ve got 11 brothers and sisters and my dad owned a bar. I’m the last guy you thought would be here, but I’m a product of the American dream,” Boehner says.

“He was a great football player,” says Gerry Faust, who built the storied Archbishop Moeller football program before making an unheard of leap to coach at the University of Notre Dame.

Faust always knew Boehner had the wherewithal to withstand the hard stuff.

“He had a bad back when he played for us, but you would never have known that. He was in there for every play, never complained and always gave his all for the team,” Faust says.

After high school, Boehner did a stint in the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War, then received a degree in business from hometown Xavier University and took a sales job in Cincinnati.

“I was the most straightforward salesman there was,” Boehner says. “I wanted to get my cards on the table as quickly as I could and encourage the guy across the table to put his cards on the table.”

He took that either-it-is going-to-work-or-it-isn't-and-let's-not-waste-time philosophy with him to Congress.

Boehner was one of the members of the Republican “Gang of Seven” in 1991 who demanded the public identification of all 355 House members who had overdrafts at the House bank. He helped draft the famed 1994 Republican "Contract with America" that outlined what the GOP would do if it took control of Congress after a 40-year hiatus.

He has never sponsored an earmark for his own district, giving him a legitimate claim as a reformer.

Boehner was No. 4 in the House Republican hierarchy in 1998 when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned because of low public approval ratings and a coup within his own party. The resignation pushed Boehner out of the leadership.

“Instead of sulking, he got to work and became a pretty effective legislator, showing that he could work well across the aisle,” said Robert Maranto, a University of Arkansas political scientist.

But Boehner's kind of effectiveness pulls few punches.

“When I got into this business, I thought what this business needs is somebody who ought to just say it the way it is,” Boehner says, adding that his candor sometimes makes his staff nervous.

Former aide Elmendorf recalls Gephardt’s toughest time occurred after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 when he was under pressure from within his party because of his cooperation with President Bush on Iraq.

“In a lot of ways Boehner is in the same position. The country is in serious trouble economically. The country is going to expect some cooperation from the Republican Party,” Elmendorf says.

Boehner stresses that the key tenets of the Republican Party are economic freedom and strong national security. He is as critical of the Obama administration’s handling of national security as he is of its spending.

“I don’t know what their plan is. When I see them make what I think was a political decision to close Gitmo without an overarching strategy or plan to deal with those who had been (detained) there, it scares me to death.”

Boehner is concerned by the release of the Justice Department memos prepared by the Bush administration that provided the legal justification for harsh interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency in questioning terror suspects. He said the Obama administration's decision to release the documents will have a chilling effect on agency operatives.

“That is not a good position for our country to be in, when our professionals are concerned about whether they can do their job the way it needs to be done,” he says.

He notes both Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, and CIA Director Leon Panetta complained that publication of the memos would be harmful to the spy agency.

Boehner sees no bipartisanship from the Obama administration or Democrats on Capitol Hill. “There is absolutely no reaching out at any level. Sure, the president asked us for our ideas. We gave them to him, and they promptly ignored them.”

“It’s been like sitting in front of a machine gun with it being pointed at you,” Boehner says.

That may be no surprise.

“The majority party runs the show, and that’s increasingly been done with little or no input from the minority,” says Texas Tech political scientist Tom Nokken.

Nokken considers the minority leader position a sort of speaker-in-waiting, “Lacking any sort of institutional heft, he is the public face trying to gain support for the minority party’s opposition to the agenda and policy positions of the majority.”

That is exactly what Boehner is trying to do: convince America that the Republican path is better than the one chosen by Democrats.

He looks around his freshly painted office, the walls gold as opposed to the dark blue favored by the previous occupant, Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is majority leader.

“There is a lot of history in this room. Sam Rayburn built this wing. Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright, Tom Foley, they have all had this office,” Boehner says, listing a Who's Who of American politics.

So, what's next?

“I want Nancy Pelosi’s job -- period,” he says.