The Necessary Man

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano and Daniel Stone

Ignore the fake tan. John Boehner could actually be a good speaker of the House.

John Boehner, the 10-term Republican congressman from Ohio and current House minority leader, seems like a pleasant enough fellow. He enjoys a good round of golf. His voice is smooth and sonorous. His resplendent ocher tan never fades, even in winter. Friends go so far as to call him "the Dean Martin of politics," a nickname that suggests (correctly) a penchant for boozy bonhomie. And yet now that the GOP's glowing midterm prospects have positioned Boehner (pronounced BAY-nur) to become the most powerful Republican in Obama's America--that is, speaker of the House--no one in Washington appears to be particularly happy about it.

Consider last week's crossfire. On one side were the Democrats, scrambling to trade in their old, tried-and-true bogeyman (George W. Bush) for a more current model (Boehner). First, President Obama traveled to Cleveland, Boehner's backyard, and knocked the House GOP leader 10 times in a 45-minute speech. Then, on Sept. 11, The New York Times published a story on Boehner's "tight ties with a circle of lobbyists" that quoted disapproving Dems. By week's end, the Democratic National Committee had launched two national TV ads and a new Web site slamming Boehner as a cartoonish fat cat--all while blasting out 40 press e-mails to make sure reporters got the point.

On the other side were the Republicans--or at least Republicans of the tea-tinged variety who won last Tuesday's marquee primaries in Delaware and New York, and will continue to pull Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment to the right. When Boehner told CBS News that Sunday that he'd be willing to compromise with Obama on the Bush tax cuts--the GOP wants to extend them all; Obama wants to limit them to the sub-$250,000 crowd--conservatives were apoplectic. "This stumble," wrote The Wall Street Journal, "makes us wonder if he's ready for prime time." A new poll showed that 67 percent of Republicans were either undecided on Speaker Boehner or would prefer someone else.

Other grumbling was more discreet. It's an open secret that Boehner's Republican lieutenants--Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, who spent last week promoting a new, coauthored book (Young Guns) about how they're more in tune with the times than their slick establishment predecessors--harbor leadership ambitions of their own. So when they instantly distanced themselves from the boss's remarks, no one was surprised. As one GOP staffer puts it, "Those guys are pushing themselves forward, with the implication that they're leaving the rest of the leadership behind. That includes John Boehner."

The funny thing about all the anti-Boehner ferment, however, is that the Ohioan's critics may soon come to consider him irreplaceable. In truth, Boehner is one of the few players in American politics with the potential to give both Republicans and Democrats what they need in the wake of November's anticipated GOP landslide. For the left, that means an experienced legislative negotiator on the opposite side of the aisle. For the right, it means a leader who can rack up tangible accomplishments for the party to run on in 2012--while also keeping the new, red-meat caucus from eating him alive.

It remains to be seen whether the House's resident Rat Packer will even attempt such a tricky dance step; for now, his tight-lipped staff is content to let everyone imagine the Speaker Boehner they want to imagine. Asked if Boehner would keep battling the White House after November or if, conversely, he'd be willing to negotiate, his spokesman, Michael Steel, left all options on the table--"yep" and "of course" were his wry answers--and refused to elaborate. Whatever Boehner's intentions, though, his record suggests that he has it in him to become Washington's "necessary man" in the years ahead--even if both parties consider him little more than a necessary evil. …