Boehner seeks to avoid ‘mean’ mistakes of prior Republican leadership

Learning from the mistakes of prior Republican leaders, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has worked to deny Democrats the chance to portray the House GOP majority as mean-spirited.

Democrats in the 1990s successfully portrayed then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as cold-hearted and later went after Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

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Ultimately, Gingrich and DeLay stumbled and Democrats helped push both leaders out of office.

Boehner has taken a different approach. While Boehner’s personality is far more easy-going than Gingrich’s and DeLay’s, the Ohio Republican has taken some policy-related steps to illustrate GOP compassion.

He has endorsed extending unemployment benefits and backed efforts to give back pay to Federal Aviation Administration officials who were furloughed this summer.

Earlier this month, Boehner issued a very measured response to President Obama’s jobs speech, as did the Speaker’s deputies.

And Boehner this week stressed there will not be a government shutdown and that disaster aid will soon be approved by the Congress.

Democrats believe they can win back the House next year, pointing out dismal approval ratings for Congress. Political analysts, citing the ailing economy, have said incumbents on both sides of the aisle should be very nervous about their reelection campaigns.

The restless electorate, coupled with polling that shows that most people believe the economy is getting worse are bad signs for Obama –- as well as Boehner’s new majority.

Boehner has seen majorities come and go, and believed that Republican leaders have previously played into the hands of Democrats.

During the 1995-1996 government shutdown debacle when Boehner was the GOP conference chairman, he said, “We've opened [ourselves] up to our opponents as being mean -- even though we’re not. How we talk about it, how we go about it is as important as what we actually do. And we've got to do better.”

Boehner, a self-described “happy warrior” has advised his colleagues to accentuate the positive, talk of areas where the parties can work together and continue moving forward with their own agenda.

A source close to Boehner said, “I think he is trying very hard to make sure that he is not portrayed like some automatically portray conservatives. If you come out to the hinterlands, there are liberal groups that, if you are a Republican, you are cold-hearted and rich and mean.”

The Boehner-led leadership team differs from the past in that it tries to “motivate people on principle and achieving consensus on how best to achieve that principle – not through intimidation but through incentive and an appeal to our common principles,” Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told The Hill.

Asked if he included previous GOP leadership teams in that mix, Ryan responded, “I’m talking about these days. Some of us who have been through those days just believe that leadership is better through incentive, consensus and running good policy – rather than intimidation, and we’re just not a machine.”
Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have sought to lead by example.

Earlier this year, the duo accepted an invitation to discuss an unemployment insurance bill with the measure’s liberal Democratic co-sponsors, Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Bobby Scott (Va.).

Boehner did not move that piece of legislation, but the meeting itself revealed a House run differently than prior leaders.

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For example, Cantor complained in the last Congress that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to meet with him on various occasions.

Throughout this year, Boehner has allowed members of both parties to offer many amendments on the floor. Democrats have noted, however, that the GOP has held a number of “closed” votes where amendments are prohibited.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), a veteran lawmaker who served in the House with Gingrich when the GOP sought to gut the Education Department and cut kids’ lunch programs, cited Boehner’s experience of playing football as a youth.

Bilbray explained that Obama’s trip this week to Ohio to highlight the need to repair a closed bridge was a “poke” in Boehner’s eye and an attempt to get in the Speaker’s head.

“John was a football player, he knows that game,” Bilbray said, “You say stuff about a guy’s sister in his ear and when he takes a shot at you, he’s [thrown] out of the game.”

Instead, Boehner and his leadership team sent a letter to the White House, praising the president for his focus on jobs and calling for bipartisan movement on areas of potential agreement.

Bilbray added that “it’s obvious that the president’s polling’s got him rattled so he knows that his only hope is to pick a fight with Congress.”