John Boehner--House Speaker and ... Consensus Builder?

Would a House Speaker Boehner work toward more centrist policies?


The 2010 elections are (for the most part) now fodder for the history books. The large majority of votes have been counted and, by all accounts, Republicans made significant gains in the U.S. House, Senate, gubernatorial races, and state legislatures. President Obama admitted in a somewhat bizarre press conference last week that Democrats were "shellacked,” but failed to specifically connect his aggressive domestic agenda with voter discontent.

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The Washington man of the moment is John Boehner, the all but certain next speaker of the House. Boehner gave a rousing, and at times, tearful, speech on election night. Boehner insisted the 112th House, under his leadership, would seek to repeal the recently enacted healthcare law as well as pursue an aggressive agenda rooted in conservative principles.

[See where Boehner gets his campaign money.]

Yet to simply take Boehner's fiery election night rhetoric at face value could be a misstep. His reputation on Capitol Hill is more that of a conservative dealmaker--at times wiling to negotiate with his Democratic counterparts for the betterment of the democracy. His style is quite different than Nancy Pelosi's slash-and-burn, take no prisoners approach to the speakership. In a recent New York Times profile piece, Boehner cited his preferred model for speaker as the legendary Nicholas Longworth, the long-time House speaker, also from Ohio, who was known as conservative, but also as a consensus builder. Boehner is not known as a political bomb thrower. He generally leaves the dirty work to his top deputy and all but certain next House majority leader, Eric Cantor. [See where Cantor gets his campaign money.]

Boehner certainly has the toughest of political and policy needles to thread in the coming two years. He's already suffered rebuke from the GOP for his professed willingness to compromise on the expiration of the Bush era tax cuts a few months back. More than likely, any outreach to President Obama or the Democratic members of his body will draw significant fire from the Republican base and be viewed as a treasonous act by conservatives. 

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One can’t help but reflect on the historical contrast to the Republican wave election of 1994. That year’s GOP takeover of Congress--rooted in the Contract with America--placed Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich at he helms of each of their legislative bodies. Granted, following the defeat, President Clinton significantly moderated his positions in order to regain the confidence of the American people (a tactic pundits and political operatives have yet to determine that Obama will employ). Yet, Dole as the Republican majority leader and Clinton, the embattled Democratic president, worked together to balance the budget, pass welfare reform, and chart a more centrist course for the nation. Both Dole and Clinton were livid with the now infamous government shutdown, recognizing that a malfunctioning Washington was simply not in the best interest of the citizenry or of either man's political ambition. Clinton and Dole worked together despite both men’s awareness that they would likely be facing off against each other for the presidency in less than two years.

Boehner harbors no presidential ambitions, and he has made it clear that he will generally pursue the conservative principles that handed him the speaker's gavel. Yet, the question remains, will he follow the Longworth/Dole model and work toward more centrist policies that conservatives can tout as a win and Democrats can at least hold their nose and support? Or will party leadership, who believe obstructionism to be the best path for the GOP in the next two years, hamstring Boehner? This latter tactic is a double-edged sword--placating angry Republicans and inciting the base, but increasing the likelihood that Obama can run against an obstructionist, Republican "do nothing" House in 2012.

Only time will tell.

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