Boehner In the Lead

Salena Zito

11/14/2010 9:26:07 AM - Salena Zito

Standing in a Racine, Wis., auditorium in late June, sleeves rolled up, President Obama delivered a campaign speech that lifted up House Minority Leader John Boehner long before the Nov. 2 election did.

Obama ridiculed the Ohio Republican’s comments to the Pittsburgh Trib about a financial reform bill’s effectiveness.

The moment marked the beginning and the end of possibilities for both men.

“Attacks are attacks. That comes with the territory,” Boehner told the Trib on Friday. Obama’s attack “became an opportunity to showcase the Republican message on creating jobs, spending and reform, and that message was very well received.”

Obama’s message, however, “backfired in a stunning way, by elevating the minority leader to the same level as the president,” says Mark Rozell, a public-policy professor at George Mason University. It also made Obama look like any other Washington politician, he adds.

Since late September, when polls made clear Boehner would be the next House Speaker, scores of fresh press biographies have poured out of Cincinnati, trying to define the man who is about to become next in line to the presidency after the vice president.

“I grew up in a big family and I have had every kind of job there ever was, from dishwasher to mopping floors,” Boehner explains. He says he shares a lot of the same experiences of his new congressmen, many of whom have run small businesses but never served in government.

“When I entered Congress, I was this small businessman who’d had enough of government and decided to do something about it. I still see myself this way,” he says.

“You would be surprised how that kind of experience” – running a small business – “will make this a better Congress. … I fully expect they will be teaching me a few new things.”

He also knows what it means to fail. Instrumental in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, he lost his leadership post in the midterm defeat of 1998.

“I think anyone who has fallen from on-high has a better perspective than someone who has not failed,” says Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio.

Kelley, who lives in the same Cincinnati suburb as the presumptive speaker, said Boehner’s election-night message “was right on – that the Republicans were given a second chance, rather than taking a victory lap the way the Democrats did following their victory in 2006.”

Liberal critics salivate at the notion of Boehner’s potential problem of herding a large majority of ideological freshman. What they fail to consider is that – unlike other years, when party candidates won by running on a collage of localized issues – this majority won with a few large puzzle pieces: cut spending, repeal or reconstitute the health-care bill, shrink government.

Such a mandate makes for cohesion.

“In my view, the biggest challenge will be leading a group of more than 80 new Republicans who will still be learning the ropes at the same time they seek to fulfill their ambitious campaign promises,” says Isaac Wood, a congressional analyst at the University of Virginia.

“What Boehner can do is bring up for a vote all the promises made in the election,” Wood says. “All he needs to do is promise that the House will move on the promises, not that they will get enacted.”

That’s what Newt Gingrich did as speaker in 1995, passing the 10 points of the “Contract with America” in his first 100 days.

Yet Boehner needs an agenda that goes beyond the promises of the GOP’s new “Pledge to America.” In 1995, once Republicans exhausted their “Contract,” they simply had nothing else to work on – and it cost them in the long run.

“I have learned that the most important thing to do in leadership is not to talk the most, but to listen,” Boehner explains. To be successful, he says Republicans must “deliver on what the American people expect from us.”

Boehner says he spent the past year in more than 160 cities, visiting 100 congressional districts and staying in more than 90 hotels, “mostly Holiday Inns.”

This weekend, he plans to get some exercise, to shop at Target, and to do some laundry.