A Politician's Politician


A day before becoming the 61st speaker of the House (and the 15th Republican to hold the gavel), John Boehner strode into the speaker's main conference room to convene the first formal House GOP leadership meeting of the 112th Congress.

Unlike his colleagues, Boehner entered without his suit jacket; his heavily starched white shirt shone crisp in the sunlight scattering the shadows in the room. As lawmakers huddled around the rectangular table, a swarm of aides shouldered for space on the crowded perimeter.

"Welcome to the majority," the Ohio Republican beamed.

After the applause died down, Boehner told his leadership team to "be careful" and "pay attention" to the staff members stuffed into the room. With a hard glare, Boehner said that in the future he wanted to economize the staff presence. Before formally seeking a 5 percent reduction in all congressional staff budgets, he wanted a deeper cut among the hangers-on present when his team met to plot and execute its strategy.

If it sounds awfully fastidious and controlling from a man stuck in the opposition for the past four years--a man who might be expected to exult in his victory, throwing caution to the wind--it should. Boehner has planned this moment for years, and he is not going to blow his speakership on cathartic but pointless expressions of ideology (even if that is what some of the bomb-throwing freshmen have in mind).

He wants to get laws passed, and he knows that doing so is a precarious business. If they will jeopardize his chance at repealing health care or cutting taxes, he won't tolerate frivolous investigations that alienate voters just for the sake of humiliating Democrats. And he won't overstate his case.

Boehner is a politician's politician. He is constantly taking the temperature of his members, balancing their interests against each other, checking the polls, and coordinating a unified message. He is already having to make adjustments--to find ways to balance expectations and performance, promises and deliveries. It is a glimpse of the leadership to come.

For Capitol archaeologists, Boehner convened his lieutenants in the room where former Speaker Newt Gingrich kept a bust of a Tyrannosaurus rex under glass--a toothy testament to his love of paleontology that he got on loan from the Smithsonian. As one top Boehner hand noted dryly, the new speaker is "not known as a fossil collector."

More to the point, Boehner doesn't want to become a fossil--not again. He was once a relic of the Gingrich revolution, a banished 1997 coup plotter against the speaker (it failed) who licked his wounds and steadily, quietly set his sights and ample strategic energy on one overarching goal--becoming speaker himself.

Jack Howard, a GOP lobbyist who worked as a counselor to Gingrich when he fended off the coup, holds no grudge against Boehner. In fact, he marvels at the newly minted speaker's ascent to power, fueled by his ability to move legislation (No Child Left Behind, pension reform, Glass-Steagall repeal, among other examples), and a knack for understanding how to maneuver around virtually any political obstacle.

"Boehner's like a guy who enters a revolving door behind you and comes out ahead," Howard said.

Boehner is now ahead as never before, and he has already imposed a level of discipline on himself and his leadership team that contrasts starkly with Gingrich's brash, bravado-driven approach to power. Gingrich guaranteed a revolution and even before becoming speaker found himself the subject of angry criticism for a $4 million two-book contract (was he trading on a constitutional office just won?) and for saying that poor, teenage mothers might lose their children to orphanages (prompting an "Uncle Scrooge" Time magazine cover).

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Nobody wants Boehner to write a book; and welfare reform--the proximate cause of Gingrich's musings about orphanages--is done. But in contrast to Gingrich's talkative approach, Boehner and his top deputy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and top vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, have been almost invisible and silent. As GOP Hill wags note, it's not the first time that Cantor and McCarthy have acted strategically: It's just the first time the strategy has included silence.

"That's the difference between having been out of power for 40 years and being out of power for four years," said Bob Walker, chairman of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker, and Gingrich's best friend in the House. "There's a higher degree of caution now."

In significant ways, this approach reflects the rise of the managers. Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy all served in state legislatures before they came to Congress. Gingrich and then-
Majority Leader Dick Armey were former college professors and conservative ideologues bent on tearing out the New Deal and the Great Society root and branch.

For Boehner, much came quickly. He was elected in 1990 and was part of Gingrich's inner circle by 1993. Cantor and McCarthy have also risen with amazing speed--Cantor was elected in 2000, McCarthy in 2006. The three share a corporate, management mind-set. (At the first leadership meeting, Boehner's staff prepared a line-by-line agenda that the speaker-to-be followed to the letter before dismissing the meeting at the appointed time--3:30 p.m.) They have tried to keep expectations modest, operating on the under-promise, over-deliver philosophy of the service industry (McCarthy once owned a deli-cum-batting cage). Holding control of only one chamber of Congress, they know that there are limits on what they can deliver and that too-empty boasts will incur voters' wrath.

"I look at the arrival of this new session with a great dose of seriousness," Cantor told National Journal in an exclusive interview moments before Boehner was sworn in. "We have significant problems. People are not feeling very secure about their future. The matters at hand really require some very hard work and attention. We are really focused on trying to lead, to deliver results. If there was any mandate from this election, it was that this agenda put in place the last two years has not been acceptable to the American people. It has not delivered the results, and we've got to make sure that business as usual in Washington stops."

But as careful as the House GOP leadership team has been, it has not succeeded in corralling its freshmen, or even some more-experienced lawmakers, on key issues such as oversight and the looming vote--sometime in March--to increase the nation's debt ceiling to prevent a government default. The chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, branded President Obama's administration one of the most "corrupt in modern times." Issa later explained he didn't mean to imply illegality, merely policy failures, overspending, and overregulation.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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