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Seasoned legislator John Boehner navigates risks of being top Republican

Boehner’s role in debt talks has shed light on the challenges he faces as the chief US Republican. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at a politician who has been forced to adjust to a changing party.


Last April, US House Republican leader John Boehner worked overtime with President Barack Obama to nail down a last-minute agreement preventing a government shutdown.

That show of bipartisan manoeuvring seems a distant memory now. Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) walked out on talks with Obama to end the debt ceiling crisis last weekend – the August 2 deadline just a bit more over a week away – and re-emerged Monday with his own Republican-brokered plan that he knows the White House won’t like.

Boehner’s involvement in the debt talks has shed new light on the challenges and risks of his role as the country’s most important Republican: he must juggle the demands of the Republican establishment in which he has deep roots with those of the party’s newer, more hard-line Tea Party faction, which has essentially called for a full dismantling of the Obama agenda. At the same time, with presidential elections less than a year and a half away, Boehner needs to prevent Republicans from appearing too uncompromising, or their as-yet-unchosen candidate will struggle to attract the independents he or she will need to unseat Obama.

Still, the House leader’s professional and personal histories have in many ways prepared him for tricky acts of navigation and negotiation.

A results-oriented approach

Boehner, a chain smoker and avid golfer who sports a year-round tan, has a reputation for being well-versed on policy matters and cordial in his dealings with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. The Republican from Ohio, who led his party back to control of the House of Representatives in the November 2010 midterm elections (replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House in January 2011), was elected to Congress in 1991. He quickly rose through the party ranks to become, in 1995, head of the House Republican Conference the committee in charge of communicating the party’s message to other members of Congress.

Boehner lost that position during a Congressional Republican leadership shake-up in 1998. But rather than stay on the sidelines, Boehner became chairman of the House Education Committee, working with Democrats including former Senator Ted Kennedy – to pass reform that required states to regularly monitor students’ skills in order to receive federal funding for schools.

Boehner’s pragmatic approach to policy was on display again in 2008, when he voted in favour of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout signed into law by former President George W. Bush and widely loathed by Tea Party supporters.

“Speaker Boehner is a genuine legislator,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That distinguishes him from many, perhaps most, of his Republican colleagues in the House, who are driven by ideology and have little if any capacity to entertain evidence or arguments contrary to their views.”

Making room for the Tea Party, but at what cost?

Boehner’s two-decade career in Washington and his past willingness to compromise in order to secure results is indicative of what Democratic Senator Barney Frank has described as his background in “mainstream” conservatism – something that threatens to put him at odds with the more stringent Tea Party-backed Republicans elected to the House in the midterm elections. Boehner has also come under fire for his chumminess with lobbyists whom Tea Party leaders have scorned as symptomatic of Washington corruption; in 1996, Boehner famously distributed checks from a tobacco lobby to colleagues before a House vote concerning the tobacco industry.

But Boehner has worked to avoid a standoff with the new wave of Tea Party conservatives. His public speeches have increasingly mimicked their more antagonistic tone – he referred to Obama’s healthcare overhaul as a “monstrosity” – and as soon as he became House speaker, he made two Tea Party-friendly announcements: there would be a Republican halt in “earmarks” (budgetary funds set aside for specific projects promoted by members of Congress), and he would not use military jets for domestic travel, as his predecessor Nancy Pelosi had.

Boehner also started more frequently highlighting, in sometimes teary public speeches, his own life story, a narrative rich in professed Tea Party values of individual responsibility and go-it-alone financial success. Boehner was born in 1949 in Cincinnati to a modest Roman Catholic family (he has said his parents were “Kennedy Democrats”). He often tells of sweeping the floor at his father’s bar and how it taught him people skills that would serve him in politics; “You have to learn to deal with every character that walks in the door,” he has said.

Boehner took a janitor job to pay his way through college – becoming the first in his family to earn a higher degree – and then worked his way up the executive ladder at a plastics company, Nucite Sales, eventually being named its president. By the time he was thirty, Boehner had married Debbie Gunlack, a secretary with whom he now has two daughters, and was making $74,000 a year. Boehner says that what he considered exorbitant taxes on that salary inspired him to adopt free-market views, become a Republican and run for the Ohio legislature in 1984 (Boehner won his race).

Twenty-six years later, Boehner finds himself more powerful, but, as the emblem of his party, more vulnerable. A Gallup poll in late April found his favourability rating had slid to 34% (from 42% in January). And a slew of polls this July found that more Americans blamed Republicans for the debt impasse than Obama. Some analysts, like Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, say that Boehner is “paying the price” for heeding the Tea Party’s calls to reject compromise with Obama.

If Boehner can push his debt plan through the House, he is hoping that both the Senate and White House will then have no choice but to sign off on it, since the August 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling will at that point be at most a few days away.

If that plan backfires – and even if it doesn’t –Boehner’s image may take a major hit.

“Which will emerge healthy from this reckless and damaging struggle: the US and global economy or Boehner’s speakership?” Mann speculated. “Not likely both.”

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