POLITICS
12/06/2010 10:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Boehner Prepares For His Speaker Of The House Challenge: The New Yorker

The New Yorker's Peter J. Boyer is out with an extensive profile of Speaker of the House-in-waiting John Boehner and the upcoming difficulties that the 20-year congressional veteran will soon face in controlling a caucus stacked with Republican legislators, both new and old, who have been sent to Washington, D.C. amid what they see as a violent storm of unrepressed conservative anger.

Boyer writes that, at the onset, Boehner is perhaps a strange choice to shepherd the 112th Congress and its inevitably ambitious agenda:

Boehner seemed an unlikely clarion for an anti-establishment revolt. He had been in Congress since 1991, during the Bush-Quayle Administration--long enough to have twice climbed from the back bench to a leadership position. He was a friend of Ted Kennedy's, and a champion of George W. Bush's expansive No Child Left Behind legislation. After the economic collapse of 2008, he had reluctantly advocated for the Troubled Asset Relief Program ("a crap sandwich," he called it), the Tea Partiers' litmus test of political villainy.

Nonetheless, Boehner has been chosen to lead the House and his party come January. And with all the comparisons of the 2010 elections to those in 1994, when Republicans blitzed Congress during the first two years of the Clinton presidency, Boehner wants to make sure that he doesn't stumble in the same places that Newt Gingrich, then the GOP's bombastic House Speaker, did. Boyer writes:

When I asked Boehner whether he saw the Republican victory of 2010, which was at least as decisive as Gingrich's, as a mandate, he seemed almost to recoil. "No, no, noooooo," he said. "I have watched people in the past deal with this issue, whether it's Speaker Gingrich, or Speaker Pelosi, or President Obama. And we made a very conscious decision that we were not going to go down that path. The tone that we set is very important. You saw it on Election Night, and you've seen it since."

Despite the supposedly clear rejection of the recent midterm election results as a "mandate," Boehner will soon be faced with the complex task of deciding the proper intersection of the legislative desires of his newly empowered, more conservative caucus, and those of the general electorate. Boyer provides some insight into how the Boehner camp is determining this assignment:

One reading is that voters were alarmed by a government stuck in overdrive, and elected Republicans in order to slow it down. As a Boehner adviser put it, "The country is saying to all of us, 'Stop. Just put the gun down and walk away.' " Boehner leans toward that interpretation, which dictates a particular approach: an effort to achieve things that might be broadly considered sensible, doable, and practical, like the earmark moratorium. If Boehner gets his way, there would be reforms of the institution itself that, if they worked, might tend toward greater caution on spending. There would be an effort to pass elements of the Pledge to America, such as a rollback of government spending to 2008 levels, and there would be extensive use of the congressional-oversight function.

But such a thrifty approach could produce some ill will from other members of the new class of GOP leadership who have vowed more aggression against the Democratic agenda. Incoming House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy explained to Boyer exactly the kind of rhetoric and action that could be expected from Tea Party leadership.

"My father was a firefighter, and there's two different ways to fight a fire--you put water on it, and put it out, and rebuild, or you backfire, and burn it all down, you know? And I think this freshman class is like that. Sometimes you change from within, and you bring the revolution in."

And with suggestions of that sort of modus operandi, Boehner's effort to temper the newly defined extremes in his party -- perhaps best embodied by people such as Rep. Michele Bachmann who last week promised an "insurrection" against the GOP leadership if they didn't successfully mount an effort for the complete repeal of health care reform -- with the less severe desires of the mainstream grows increasingly complicated. Boyer explains:

Boehner faces the same dilemma that establishment Republicans faced in the primary season, when candidates considered more viable in the general election were often pushed aside by purists. He knows what the base wants--an immediate, sustained effort to undo the entire Obama agenda. But the broader public, especially independents, might be repulsed by a reign of what would almost certainly be portrayed as radical Republicanism. That is why Boehner has avoided showcasing a symbolic H.R.1--the first bill that will be passed by the next Congress. If it were a full repeal of health care, the country might see it as partisan vengeance; if it were anything else, the base would begin to grumble about the squishes running the Party.

And though the repeal of health care reform often comes to embody the upcoming legislative struggle that will take place in the Republican-controlled Congress, Boyer writes of another immediate and crucial concern that could cause tensions to flair quickly in his party: raising the ceiling on the national debt.

Boehner and his team will have to convince Republicans that it really is in their best interest to go along with something they vowed, as candidates, to oppose. "This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment" for the new Republican majority, Boehner told me. "You can underline 'adult.' And for people who've never been in politics it's going to be one of those growing moments. It's going to be difficult, I'm certainly well aware of that. But we'll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn't do it."

Beyond his forthcoming political choices, however, Boehner must also contend with continuing questions of his professional character and work ethic. In the run-up to the current legislative period, Boyer writes that Boehner made a conscious effort to tone down his relentlessly mocked tan by being extra careful to apply sunscreen and minimize his sun exposure. One of the ways he did this was to cut down on his notorious love of golfing, an activity that has birthed some questions from both sides of the aisle about how he will conduct himself as Speaker. From Boyer's piece:

Boehner's friend Jim McCrery says, "He enjoys playing golf. He enjoys having a drink of Merlot. He doesn't work eighteen hours a day. But he gets a lot done during the course of a day, when he does work. And he does delegate to staff, and he gets a lot out of his fellow-members. He's very effective. But he is not a dynamo. Like, Newt was go-go-go-go-go, banging his fist on the table and raising his voice, and very histrionic--John's not like that at all. So some people look at the outside John Boehner and say, 'Golly, he's not a dynamic leader.' Well, he's got a different style. But he's not lazy. He's very effective. And he gets results."

Read Peter J. Boyer's entire piece in The New Yorker here.