‘Speaker Boehner’? GOP Leader Steps It Up While Stepping In It

July 5, 2010 4:47 am

What has gotten into House Minority Leader John Boehner lately? First he sticks his foot in his mouth about BP’s liability for the Gulf Coast oil spill and then he hand-delivered the Democrats a campaign ad by comparing the economy to an “ant.”

For the outside, it didn’t seem like a good week for Boehner (R-OH), as he first blundered through a Pittsburgh newspaper interview by belittling economic woes and touching the third rail of American politics by proposing the Social Security retirement age be raised. By midweek a top Republican on national cable was calling him lazy. But to hear the Republicans tell it, things are all going according to plan. If that is just a cover-up for stepping in it, Boehner might have RNC Chariman Michael Steele to thank for capturing the Democrats’ attention in an even bigger dustup.Boehner’s weekly press conference last Thursday allowed him to jab at the president again, accusing President Obama of “whining.” But it was a question he didn’t answer that may have been the most revealing.

“Do you think the president, in slamming you … does that means he’s worried about you taking the House?,” a reporter asked the minority leader as he left the room. His spokesman says Boehner would have answered “Yes,” and private conversations with aides in both parties admit the potential of the speaker’s gavel has a lot to do with Boehner’s new strategy.

The Democrats, of course, couldn’t be happier.

It’s hard to believe the Republicans are serious when they say that several days of bad publicity are all part of the plan, but it was the theme echoed by staffers with whom TPM spoke. They think Boehner is being aggressive — though inartful — on purpose and has elevated himself to merit an Obama swat-down.

A Republican aide speaking on background told TPM that rank-and-file members feel like Boehner “has taken the fight” to the Democrats, forcing them to focus on him. Until this week, Boehner had commanded little of Obama’s attention.

“It raises John Boehner to the president’s level, and whether they meant to do it or not, they have,” the GOP aide said in an interview. The aide (who does not work for Boehner) said Boehner’s team has decided he won’t just take lumps and move on if the Democrats jump on something he said. The new strategy is to “start throwing some of your own back,” using the media attention to highlight the party’s messages for the fall elections.

The aide’s rosy outlook on November is a factor in his forgiveness for Boehner, sure, but there’s no doubt that recent events have raised the minority leader’s national visibility. (As we wrote last spring, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the only widely-known members of Congressional leadership.)

“Speaker Boehner is a real possibility,” the aide said.

Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the Republican conference and a key member of leadership (who is considering a 2012 White House bid), was quick to defend Boehner in an interview with TPM on Thursday. He said Boehner is “plain-spoken.”

Pence (R-IN) also batted back against MSNBC personality and former Rep. Joe Scarborough’s suggestion this week that Boehner is not a hard worker and hits the bars in Washington most nights by 6 p.m.

“The Republican leader is working harder to win back the American Congress for the common sense and common values of the American people than anybody I know,” Pence said.

But it’s a delicate dance as Boehner tries to lead his party to the majority. Aides concede that avoiding gaffes would help, especially since they believe that Friday’s gloomy economic news gives the GOP a boost. But, at the same time, he’s been effective at keeping rank-and-file members in line on major policy issues, and aides believe if the Republicans were to win back the majority there is no doubt Boehner would be their choice for speaker.

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