John Boehner: The GOP’s Misunderestimated Man

Don’t fall for Obama’s jokes about his tan. GOP House Leader John Boehner, who may be the next speaker, is ready for battle.

House Minority Leader John Boehner backed by other House Republicans, discusses GOP priorities as Congress prepares to recess so members can focus on their campaigns, Washington D.C., September 29, 2010. (Roger L. Wollenberg / Landov)

As House Minority Leader, John Boehner has led a disciplined and often fierce Republican resistance to President Obama’s domestic agenda. But though he’s the odds-on favorite to be the next speaker of the House, Boehner remains a complete mystery outside of D.C., best known for the jokes the president has made about his Snooki-esque tan.

Unlike Newt Gingrich, widely seen as a man of ideas (including crackpot ideas) during his mid-1990s heyday, Boehner is an ideological non-entity. Everyone knows that he’s against whatever the president is for, but no one can say exactly where he wants to take the country. That’s about to change. On Thursday, Boehner gave an address at the American Enterprise Institute that lays out the core principles of what we might call “Boehnerism.”

Over the last week, the Republican “Pledge to America”—Boehner’s answer to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America”—has been widely condemned on the left and the right for dodging hard choices. By committing Republicans to spending cuts yet ring-fencing virtually all of the biggest spending programs, the Pledge has been a ripe target for Democratic candidates.

The trouble for Democrats, of course, is that hardly any actual voters have even heard of the Pledge. Most who have heard of it rightly dismiss it as a gimmick. But on Thursday, Boehner gave an address at the American Enterprise Institute that laid out a vision for reforming how the House does business. And for conservatives, at least, it contains glimmers of hope.

After lengthily decrying congressional dysfunction, Boehner called for increasing transparency by breaking up “comprehensive” spending bills. “Rather than pairing agencies and departments together,” Boehner argued, “let them come to the House floor individually, to be judged on their own merit.” The idea is that members shouldn’t be forced to vote spending increases for one agency simply because they want to fund another. Requiring each department and agency to stand on its own merit will, in theory, make spending cuts easier.

Boehner also proposed a “CutGO” rule, a clever spin on “PAYGO.” Under this rule, spending to create new programs would have to be balanced by cuts to existing programs in the same bill. The goal is to encourage a more rigorous conversation about where scarce taxpayer dollars should flow. Advocates for increased spending on early childhood education will have to explain why their effort should take precedence over, say, manned space exploration or building new highways. This is one proposal that seems too good to be true. One suspects that Democrats will refuse to play along and that pork-hungry Republicans will find a way around the rule. But it’s certainly worth a shot.

For all its virtues, Boehner’s AEI speech will be remembered as little more than a footnote in the history of the 2010 midterms. The real action this week was over tax cuts, and a rebellion among conservative and moderate Democrats that caught Speaker Pelosi off guard. The White House and the Democratic congressional leadership favor retaining the $3.1 trillion in tax cuts aimed at the middle class while allowing $700 billion in high-income rate reductions to expire.

John Boehner has outmaneuvered Pelosi at almost every step since the passage of the new health law.

But as Boehner mentioned at the top of his speech, there was a clear bipartisan majority, including 39 House Democrats, in favor of extending all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. To avoid saddling vulnerable Democrats with an unpopular vote, Speaker Pelosi had intended to adjourn the House and thus delay a vote on the tax cuts until after the election. Boehner turned the vote to adjourn into a proxy battle over the tax cuts, and Speaker Pelosi won by a mere 210 votes to 209.

The Daily Beast’s Zachary Roth: The Tea Party Trademark WarAs Keith Hennessey, chair of the National Economic Council at the end of the Bush administration, has argued, the Democratic leadership made a serious blunder by placing taxing at the heart of its pre-campaign efforts. Democrats have traditionally had an edge on issues like Medicare and Social Security and education spending, and they can always make political gains by accusing Republicans of trying to gut all three.

But on taxes, the Democrats painted themselves in a corner. Their case against the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts has been that the country can’t afford them. Yet they’re united in backing the extension of the vast majority of the tax cuts. The Republican argument that we shouldn’t raise anyone’s taxes in a weak economy resonated more than it might have if the Democrats took a more consistent position.

By any standard, Speaker Pelosi should be celebrated by the left. She accomplished legislative goals that Democrats have been working toward since the New Deal era through sheer doggedness and determination. But John Boehner has outmaneuvered her at almost every step since the passage of the new health law. Instead of celebrating the health law as a major progressive victory, Democratic incumbents are skirting the issue, hoping it won’t cost them their jobs. And in the last weeks before the midterms, Boehner forced Democrats into a tax fight they can’t win. One gets the impression that he has been misunderestimated.

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Reihan Salam is a policy adviser at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.