Monday, July 25, 2011

The Most Underestimated Politician in Washington, DC

At the outset of his becoming speaker of the U.S. house of representatives, John Boehner, congressman from Ohio, had the good wishes and modest hopes of his fellow Republicans, and big question marks from everyone else.

His first impression was positive, albeit a bit teary (revealing a small tic of the new speaker, although an endearing one). Mr. Boehner was brought to power by an historic off-year national election in which voters across the nation had registered their abhorrence of the radical policies of the new Democratic administration under President Barack Obama and his colleagues in the U.S. senate and house, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. The switch from Democratic majorities in 2006 and 2008 had been amazingly rapid, and was brought on by trying to intimidate radical policies, but the new Republican majority in the U.S. houses faced Democratic control in the U.S. senate and in the White House.

Some observers thought that Congressman Eric Cantor, a brilliant new GOP leader form Virginia who did become house majority leader, might be a tougher figure in the role. Mr. Boehner was a charmer and an effective minority leader, but the role of speaker, for the first time since 1993, now was to be an historically pivotal role. Being minority leader is usually a checkers game; the speaker of the house, especially when the other party controls the executive branch is a serious game of chess.

The whole nation has just been given an education by Speaker Boehner in how this serious game can be played. Perhaps the most presumptive president in memory, although himself an amateur politician, was used to getting his way, particularly in the first two years of his first term. His way, it turned out, to be one public policy mistake after another. With unemployment at chronic highs, deficits soaring, and the so-called debt limit at its legal edge, the nation has been gradually losing its confidence and its patience with its chief executive and commander in chief. Nevertheless, Barack Obama routinely summoned Republican leaders to one-sided discussions (after ignoring them in his first two years) after which he deplored GOP unwillingness to “compromise.” In fact, the president’s idea of compromise usually turned out to actually be the surrender of the other side.

It was as if Mr. Obama had been on vacation during the 2010 election and its results. (In fact, I know some serious persons who will argue that he was.)

The Old Media, having invested so much of their reputation in Mr. Obama’s rise to power, continued to perform as uncritical cheerleaders. After all, with the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC/ABC/CBS and their cable outlets all singing Mr. Obama’s praises no matter what he said or did, how could anything be wrong?

The 2012 presidential campaign began later than usual; there was a nominal frontrunner, but no overwhelming Republican or conservative figure among them. The president faced campaign criticism, and media criticism from the emerging New Media, including commentators on Fox News, in conservative print media and in the opposition flagship, The Wall Street Journal, but there was no one who really stood up to Mr. Obama’s routine misstatements of fact, unsupported claims, and misunderstandings of political and economic reality.

That time is now over. Until the Republican Party chooses its presidential nominee in Tampa, there is someone in the loyal opposition who seems to have the president’s number. That person is John Boehner. So far, he can’t be bullied and can’t be bluffed. Mr. Cantor, the majority leader, is proving to be an able colleague. The GOP “freshmen” from 2010 are sticking to their guns on the issues which brought them to Washington, DC, including no new taxes, no more deficits and smaller government. If the truth be told, Mr. Boehner was not at first one of them, but he wisely adapted his leadership to them. (If he had not, his caucus would have splintered and fallen apart.)

Already, in various states, the transformation of American public policy is taking place. Under Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio, Bob McConnell of Virginia, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Perry in Texas, and at least one Democrat, Andrew Cuomo of New York, new relationships between raising government revenue and public spending are being enacted. A state government shutdown in Minnesota recently ended when conservative principles won most of the day. Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, Pennsylvania and, yes, California (under new Governor Jerry Brown) are also moving in this direction.

Somehow, President Barack Obama seems to have missed all of this. His lifeless populist rant of “tax the rich” has found no resonance among voters outside a small radical group. Perhaps the president should make a telephone call to Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota, instead of badgering Speaker Boehner. I’m sure Governor Dayton will take his call, and will patiently explain to the president that “tax the rich” rhetoric isn’t worth the effort. (Governor Dayton showed significant leadership recently by abandoning this idea and its rhetoric and brokering a settlement with the state conservative legislative leadership.)

Meanwhile, there is a new sheriff in Washington, DC. I hope Speaker Boehner sticks to his principles and doesn’t think initial successes have finished his job. In fact, much rests on what Speaker Boehner and his colleagues can accomplish between now and the 2012 election when the American voter will have their next opportunity to make their government work right again.

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