Boehner’s moment

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was crying before he completed his first trip across the House floor to the rostrum as the third most powerful man in America. When a defiant, no-regrets Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) handed over the gavel, Boehner hugged and kissed her and pulled his tissues out once more. Then he shushed the growing applause with his aw-shucks smile and offered up some comforting words: “It’s still just me.”

By the time he finished his remarks just moments later, urging his colleagues to move forward “humble in our demeanor and steady in our principles,” Boehner had succeeded in telegraphing to those hundreds of thousands of Americans fuming at the ineptitude and arrogance of Congress that he hears their frustration and that he is deeply humbled by his responsibility.

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In this, the biggest week of his life, Boehner avoided pricey parties and the spotlight. He had decided well in advance to forgo a victory celebration on election night. Boehner has not uttered one boastful, self-aggrandizing statement since his party won the largest majority in half a century. He faces enormous challenges as House Speaker, leading in a divided government during a time of intractable problems and years of gridlock. He is not known, beyond education and issues of taxation and spending, as a policy wonk. Yet he has already revealed his style as a true workhorse, taking steps to produce meaningful changes in the way Congress operates, and doing so without partisan rhetoric.

In the moment of ascent for a leaderless party cleansed by a leaderless movement, Boehner is a paradox. A genuine conservative reformer who began his career as an insurgent, Boehner has opposed earmark spending throughout his congressional tenure. Yet he remains the quintessential professional politician — known for once passing out donations from the tobacco industry on the House floor and a hobby of golf with lobbyists. In their new Speaker, the Tea Party-fueled conservatives who have come to Congress or are closely watching it have not an ideologue, not a visionary, not someone who can be or desires to be the leader of his party or of his country. But the fact is only many years at the game, and numerous knife-fights, can produce a pro like Boehner. It isn’t insignificant that despite some tough talk from those newly elected, not one Republican voted against him for Speaker on Wednesday. 

In Boehner’s House, power has been decentralized away from the Speaker’s office, the exact opposite of the way his predecessors operated. Spending for all House offices has been cut 5 percent, and the Appropriations Committee will cut its spending by 9 percent. Without directly eviscerating the formerly untouchable Appropriations Committee, Boehner has markedly diminished the panel’s membership and power over spending and, symbolically or not, literally moved them to the basement as he took over their vista-filled offices with balconies looking out at the National Mall just off the House floor. 

One GOP member who has battled with Boehner said “the man and the moment have met.” He added that Boehner “sees himself as a transactional politician rather than a transformational or inspirational leader. He will negotiate in good faith but he will drive a hard bargain.”

Many predict Boehner’s greatest challenge will be pressure from House Republicans eager to assuage the Tea Party. But on his first day as Speaker, Boehner was talking to the center. He knows that independent voters who brought the House Republicans to power aren’t particularly fond of them and that even if he keeps the Tea Party on board, those same voters who threw Republicans out of the majority in 2006 can do it again. As soon as next year.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.