The most underestimated man in Washington, DC has a
very powerful position, and in an era of political stalemate
in the nation’s capital, he has accomplished a relatively
great deal. Nevertheless, his political opponents try to
dismiss him, many of his supposed political allies try to
belittle him, and most in the media just ignore him.
He is the speaker of the U.S. house of representatives, third
in line for the presidency, and perhaps the most adult figure
now in a city where grown-ups routinely act as children.
He even has a notable life story to tell, but since he is not
running for president, nor ever expressed an interest in doing
so, it is treated as just another bio and not enlarged into a
John Boehner was the second of 12 children from a small
midwestern town in Ohio, the son of a bartender/bar owner,
and the first in his family to attend college. That was Xavier
University. After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but
was soon sent home with a bad back. He worked for a small
business, got himself elected to the Ohio state legislature,
and finally challenged a controversial incumbent congressman
of his own party, and won. He has won ten elections since then
either by landslides or with no opposition.
An ally of then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, he won a
surprise election to the house leadership, then became majority
leader. After the GOP lost their majority in 2006, he was
elected minority leader again until 2010 when a Republican
landslide brought his party back to power in the house and put
Boehner into the speakership.
Lacking a majority in the U.S. senate, and with a Democrat in the
White House, Boehner began his speakership cautiously. His
GOP majority in the house, furthermore, was divided and unruly.
His colleagues, over his advice, shut down the government in 2013
when the senate and President Obama would not compromise on
their differences, and the result was a public relations disaster.
Various factions erupted in the house caucus, and the new speaker
was often criticized for not doing more.
In 2014, with the mid-term elections imminent, Mr. Boehner
steered the house from another shutdown. The GOP then
increased its majority in the house and won back control of the
senate. Now controlling both houses of Congress, many
conservatives had hopes of quickly repealing Obamacare,
drastically cutting government domestic spending, dramatically
reducing entitlements and lowering taxes. Lacking large enough
majorities to overturn President Obama’s certain vetoes of these
measures, stalemate in Washington, DC has remained. Both
Speaker Boehner and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch
McConnell have been criticized by some conservatives and some
GOP governors for not doing enough with their majorities to pass
the Republican agenda.
As he has every August for years, Speaker Boehner makes a
month-long bus tour through the country to raise funds for his
PAC (that funds close house races), recruit challengers to
Democratic incumbents, support his GOP colleagues, and to
rally Republicans in his role as the most powerful elected
Republican in Washington, DC.
This year, Boehner has a much more aggressive and positive
message than usual. Conceding the power of Republicans to
change many Obama administration policies is limited, Mr.
Boehner has nevertheless claimed many accomplishments for
the GOP. Some of them are notable, although the liberal media
has done little reporting of them, including limiting tax increases;
supported giving law enforcement new tools to fight human
trafficking; enacted reforms in job training, student loan programs,
Veterans Administration and Medicare; stopped the transfer of
terrorist detainees into the U.S.; improved U.S. foreign intelligence
capabilities; passed the most pro-life legislation in history;
approved new resources to improve veterans’ health care; banned
earmarks; enabled the U.S. to become the world’s largest energy
producer; and cut governments spending by $2.1 trillion. Two
GOP initiatives were of larger impact. First, the GOP Congress led
efforts to enact more than $2.9 trillion in entitlement reform, and
in rare cooperation with President Obama, passed trade agreements
and gave the president trade authority, The latter was opposed by
most Democrats, but was passed mostly with GOP votes and sent
to the president for his signature.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell assert that they have led a
do-something Congress, but underscoring the speaker’s message
on his bus tour this year is the central point that major change and
reform cannot occur without a Republican president.
Recently, Mr. Boehner led bipartisan congressional tours to the
Middle East and Central Europe to reassure our friends and allies
that the U.S. stands behind them. While not directly criticizing
current U.S. foreign policy (which Mr. Boehner clearly feels is not
very reassuring to those friends and allies), the speaker (who is not
known for previous foreign policy acumen) proved to be a skillful
spokesman and diplomat. His trips were largely ignored by the
U.S. media on both the right and the left, but were clearly
well-received abroad. Earlier in the year, Speaker Boehner took the
initiative of inviting Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu
to address the Congress, a move bitterly opposed by President
Obama who attempted to stop it. Mr. Boehner prevailed, however,
and Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance was a political triumph.
Not much of a public orator, Mr. Boehner remained on the public
sidelines in his first years as speaker, making few appearances on
talk shows and failed to develop an effective communications
effort from his office. Individuals and small groups in his own
caucus frequently criticized and challenged him, but only recently
has he insisted on more loyalty and support from his colleagues,
removing some members from chairmanships who refused to be
part of his leadership team. He has beefed up his communications
efforts, increasing appeared on talk shows, and been an outspoken
critic of Democrats, including especially Mrs. Clinton.
Although another government shutdown is looming, it is doubtful
Mr. Boehner and his colleague Mr. McConnell will let that happen.
It was avoided in 2013, and voters rewarded that in 2014. With the
all-important 2016 presidential and congressional elections only a
year away, the GOP leadership seems to know better than to
appear responsible for shutting the government down again.
When it became clear that John Boehner was going to become
speaker in 2010, I remember sitting with Newt Gingrich, and
asking him if he thought Boehner was ready to assume that office.
“No,” the former speaker said, adding quickly “But neither was I.”
The speakership could be one of the most under-appreciated high
offices in government, and it is certainly one of the most difficult
to perform well in, having constantly to keep often-disagreeing
members together to vote on policies that serves the larger needs
of the nation. It requires patience, strategic skill and a strong
commitment to the national interest. This is especially true when a
member of another party sits in the White House. Unlike during the
last part of Newt Gingrich’s speakership, the Democratic president
in 2015 is unwilling very often to negotiate and compromise, and
the result is prolonged and frustrating stalemate.
Considering all of this, whether or not one agrees or disagrees with
his politics, John Boehner has risen from his small town roots, to
become one of the most effective and statesmanlike house speakers
in modern times. It appears that it was a very good thing that he grew
up with eleven other brothers and sisters.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.