If the polls and political analysts are right about the midterm elections, John Boehner, known for his hard-edged partisan rhetoric, including his promise to roll back health care reform and other Obama administration initiatives, will become speaker of the House. Yet that portrayal contrasts sharply with the John Boehner of the late 1990s, who found common ground with the Democrats on important health care, workforce and education issues.
Rep. John Boehner’s political career hit rock bottom in late 1998, when he was ousted from a House Republican leadership post in the declining days of the Republican Revolution after a major falling out with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Some thought it was over for him back in the Newt Gingrich era,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron. “It’s the kind of setback that would have made some people a backbencher for the rest of their career. But he managed to rise above it.”
Instead of retreating into political exile, Boehner quickly reinvented himself as a legislative deal maker in the Education and Workforce subcommittee and soon moved up to the chairmanship of the full committee. Within a year’s time he had racked up an impressive legislative record — including passage of employer-run health insurance programs and a bipartisan version of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” educational reforms.
The chain-smoking, low-key conservative lawmaker from Ohio surprisingly enlisted two key Democratic allies during those difficult negotiations: Rep. George Miller of California and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, two of the most prominent liberals in Congress at the time.
During a recent interview with The Fiscal Times, Boehner said “I’m proud of the work we did on the education reform bill” and suggested that his approach back then is how he would conduct himself as speaker. “Going forward, I will continue to fight for the smaller, more accountable government the American people want,” he said. “To the extent that President Obama and congressional Democrats are willing to work with us toward that goal, I think we can get a lot done.”
Democrats generally don’t believe Boehner will be willing to work with them next year and have portrayed him as an obstructionist who has consistently tried to thwart President Obama’s economic and domestic agenda. “That was a long time ago,” Miller said recently of Boehner’s bipartisanship on education issues during the Bush administration. “I haven’t seen any evidence of it since then.”
instincts are to seek common ground with the Democrats.
During a recent speech in Ohio, Obama singled out the would-be speaker, saying that he and the Republican leadership are “asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class.”
Some political analysts believe that Boehner’s instincts are to seek common ground with the Democrats, but that he has had to be cautious to avoid alienating hard-line conservatives in his party. His one recent attempt at bipartisanship — when he said on “Face the Nation” that he might vote with the Democrats to extend tax cuts to the middle class and not the wealthy if that were the only choice — triggered such an angry GOP backlash that Boehner backed away from his comment.
“If he could have the politics he wanted, I think he would like to see a more bipartisan Congress,” said William Cunion, professor of American government and politics at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. “But I don’t think he gets to determine the context in which he will be speaker of the House, if that occurs,” Cunion added. “We are living in extremely partisan times. In that context, there is good reason to think he would not be conciliatory.
The Early Years
So who is the real John Boehner, the deal maker or the partisan hatchet-man? And what would that mean for the House in the likely event he should replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker next year?
Boehner, 60, describes himself as an up-from-the-bootstraps kind of guy, one of 12 children in a working class Catholic family who grew up in a two-bedroom house in Cincinnati. After working his way through Xavier University as a janitor, Boehner went to work for a small Ohio plastics and packaging business and eventually took it over. He began his political career serving on the Union Township Board of Trustees before winning election to the Ohio House in 1984, at the age of 34. Then in 1990, he won a seat in Congress by challenging and defeating incumbent Republican Donald (Buzz) Lukens in the heavily Republican district.