Burdened with governing, speaker faces scorn of GOP firebrands
Deidre Shesgreen reports:
Soon after John Boehner arrived in Washington in 1991, he became a darling of the rising conservative movement. Nobody’s idea of a moderate Republican or a wishy-washy compromiser, Boehner made a splash by challenging GOP leaders and taking on the status quo.
Now, as he begins his second term as House speaker, the West Chester Republican is the target of withering attacks from some conservatives who say he’s a spineless sellout – quick to compromise core GOP principals and ideologically rudderless as he tries to keep his grip on power.
What has changed?
The party has tilted rightward, with the influx of tea party conservatives and upstart advocacy groups. The economic and political climate has shifted, with spiraling deficits taking center stage and hyper-partisanship making compromise nearly impossible.
Boehner himself is a different lawmaker, too, gaining a pragmatic streak as he worked his way up the leadership ladder.
How much each of these factors explains Boehner’s current predicament – in which right-wing activists are blasting nearly every move he makes and his grasp on the speaker’s gavel seems tenuous – depends on whom you ask.
A spokeswoman for Boehner said he was unavailable for an interview for this story. In a statement, Boehner said: “I have always listened to the people of the 8th District and tried to represent them in Congress effectively and with integrity. As I’ve always said: If you do things for the right reasons, good things will happen. I’ve lived my life with that outlook and have no plans to change now.”
‘Ideologically’ a tea partier
Boehner’s friends and allies say his fundamental political philosophy has not changed. They say he is essentially the same rock-ribbed conservative as when he was first elected to represent Ohio’s 8th Congressional District in 1990 on a campaign of lower taxes and less government regulation. Boehner simply faces different challenges now, supporters say, because, as the most powerful Republican in Washington, he is weighted with the competing tasks of producing legislative results and leading an increasingly fractious GOP conference.
“He was tea party before there was a tea party,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, one of Boehner’s closest friends in the House. “Ideologically, he’s still there.”
His old Cincinnati friends see him as “the same John that was a township trustee” in the 1980s, said Greg Jolivette, a former Butler County Commissioner who ran against Boehner as a Democrat in the 1990 congressional election.
“He’s walking in the tall cotton now, but he is still grounded in the same core family values that molded his career,” said Jolivette, who became a Republican after that race, saying it made him realize he had the same political views as Boehner.
“I think he’s the same person he was in 1981,” said Carlos Todd, who was elected that year along with Boehner to serve as a Union Township trustee. “He had a knack for dealing with people and getting things done, and I think he’s the same way today.”
Boehner hasn’t changed politically, either, Todd said, arguing that the main difference between Boehner and other conservatives is tactics, not substance. “He definitely has some of the tea party philosophy, but he knows when to push the button and when not to.”
Critics say Boehner’s political passions have been tempered by time, by his acclimation to Washington’s status-quo culture and by his appetite for power. Some even question whether he was ever a true conservative.
“He’s a weak-kneed moderate who is willing to raise taxes and raise spending and isn’t serious about the debt problem,” said Ron Meyer, a spokesman for American Majority Action, a group that helped spearhead the unsuccessful effort to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair earlier this month. “He’s not speaker because he wants to enact conservative change. He’s speaker because he wants to be” in a position of power.
Boehner grew up in Reading, the second oldest of 12 children who started working in his family’s bar before he was a teenager. He graduated from Xavier University and went to work at Nucite Sales, a packaging and plastics company, where he chafed under federal regulations and high taxes.
Those issues sparked his interest in running for Congress. His rhetoric during that first campaign will sound familiar to anyone listening today when the then-state legislator blasted Congress for an “unending appetite for new programs and continued spending” and promised to oppose tax increases.
Once in Washington, he joined the “Gang of Seven,” a renegade group who helped expose lawmakers’ overdrafts at the House bank and crusaded against other congressional perks, among other things. “He was super conservative … out there throwing rocks at the establishment” with other members of the Gang of Seven, said ex-Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, who was elected to the House the same year as Boehner.
Boehner became one of the top acolytes of soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and he played a major role in crafting the GOP’s “Contract With America,” a 10-point campaign platform that helped catapult Republicans into the majority in the 1994 elections.
“He was a reformer when he got there, … and he’s always been kind of ahead of the curve on some things, like earmarks,” said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana representative who is now president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that’s been at odds with Boehner recently on a bevy of fiscal issues.
Rated one of most conservative
Even when his colleagues were gorging on pork projects and steering millions of dollars back to their districts, Boehner never sought any of those specially tagged funding provisions. Boehner’s voting record on other issues has been typically conservative.
His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 89.91 out of a possible 100, based on his votes from 1991 through 2010. And he has voted with his party more than 90 percent of the time during that period, according to analyses by Congressional Quarterly, a Washington publication. (As speaker in 2011 and 2012, Boehner has rarely voted, following House tradition.)
An analysis by the nonpartisan National Journal tells a similar story, with Boehner ranked as one of the most conservative members in the House. In 2010, the most recent year available for Boehner, he was listed as the eighth most conservative lawmaker.
“If he led like he voted, I think that the conference would move in a more conservative, pro-growth direction,” Chocola said. He suggested conservatives would be happier with Boehner if he steered the House like Nancy Pelosi did when she was speaker, ramming proposals like the health-care reform law through the House despite some discomfort from moderate Democrats and political risk to her party.
Chocola’s Club for Growth has helped torpedo some of Boehner’s efforts at compromise and has worked to elect the most conservative, anti-establishment candidates in GOP primaries across the country.
“The right has moved further to the right,” said ex-Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a longtime Boehner ally. “I think (Boehner has) remained constant, but the sand has shifted underneath him.”
He said the firebrands elected to the House in recent years are a different breed than those who joined in the early 1990s.
While Boehner was certainly a bomb-thrower during the GOP revolution, he has also always been an “institutionalist,” LaTourette said. “That means you want the system to work.”
Today, LaTourette said, Boehner is “managing some people that have no interest in governing. They just have an interest in being bomb-throwers.”
David Wasserman, an editor who tracks House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, has noted a “dramatic generational change” inside Boehner’s conference.
“Forty-five percent of House Republicans are freshmen and sophomores, many of whom see the ‘old guard’ as the fiscal problem,” Wasserman wrote in a recent analysis. “It’s also undergone tremendous ideological change. Perhaps most importantly, there are fewer members on both sides than ever before with genuine incentive to reach across the aisle.”
Jolivette said Boehner is probably “in lock step” with the hard-core conservatives in his conference when it comes to political views. The difference comes, he said, in Boehner’s willingness to find consensus, if he can do so without compromising his principles.
“The tea party folks don’t even want to think about the reality” of having to govern, Jolivette said. So Boehner has “had to walk a very fine line, trying to maintain (unity in) his caucus and trying to do what’s good for the country.”
Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed there’s a different mindset among conservatives today, but he said it’s because many feel the country is “at the edge of a fiscal calamity the likes of which we have never seen before.” Still, Franc is no critic of Boehner’s politics.
“I would make a case that, from a purely philosophical standpoint, he’s the most conservative speaker we’ve ever had,” said Franc, a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Unlike in previous decades, where some moderate GOP leaders argued in favor of tax increases, Franc said, Boehner is as strongly opposed to tax hikes as his Republican troops. The debate inside the GOP conference now is about strategy, not substance.
Boehner’s strategy is too timid for conservatives like Meyer, of American Majority Action. The 23-year-old activist, who started a campaign on Twitter to oust Boehner, talks about the speaker in disdainful terms.
“The dislike of John Boehner, it’s been a very present reality in the conservative movement really since before he was elected speaker,” said Meyer. “No one’s ever thought of him as a conservative member. We’ve always thought of him as an establishment member.”
Enquirer research intern Josh Wright contributed