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19 April 2014 06:47 (South Africa)
Politics

John Boehner, would-be king-maker, and the proud owner of an extraordinary, naartjie-coloured tan

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Politics
john boehner main

Over the next two months, you are going to hear a whole lot about John Boehner as Barack Obama and the Democrats struggle to depict this congressman as the real face of Republican opposition to any hopes for the nation’s economic recovery. Readers may want to clip and save this profile of the most important Republican insider politician in the US. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

And if the Republicans do gain control of the House of Representatives in November, you’re going to hear even more about, and from, him. Not Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, nor even Newt Gingrich - In fact, even as you read this, the Democratic National Committee has just launched new anti-Boehner advertisements on national cable television, and Barack Obama has again singled out Boehner as the real voice of the opposition in a speech he gave on Monday.

Meanwhile, Congressman Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, told reporters earlier this week “voters deserve to know more about John Boehner and what Republicans plan to do if given the opportunity”. And you can just bet that it won’t be nice things Democrats want them to learn as the commercials paint Boehner as an old-style Republican, totally in the embrace of big business – something that just might diminish Tea Party enthusiasm and others who want to clean house in the House. Or as a Democratic party spokesman told The New York Times earlier this week, these ads should remind voters of the bad old days of Republican congressional majorities that “did the bidding of corporate America while leaving ordinary American families to fend for themselves”.

Democrats are also hoping that if they can show Boehner is the real head of the party, they may just be able to drive a bit of a wedge between him and other ambitious Republicans who see the coming election as their moment to step into the spotlight – thereby producing conflicting, dissonant messages among Republicans with voters. Boehner remains largely unknown to American voters outside his congressional district. As a result, Democrats hope to publicise his positions - such as his opposition to a measure that paid to preserve jobs of teachers and emergency workers and that was partly funded by closing a tax loophole for companies doing business overseas – thereby turning him into a liability with voters, just as the election nears the home stretch.

The ad says in part: “John Boehner opposes funding for government jobs, jobs for teachers, for cops, for fire-fighters.” Then over some Asian-style string music, “Boehner has a different plan: Tax cuts for businesses and those that shift jobs and profits overseas. Saving multinational corporations 10 billion.” Not subtle; perhaps effective.

Those with really long political memories may also recall Boehner almost got called off-sides and red-carded early in his career, back in 1995 when he was caught actually handing out tobacco lobby cheques for campaign expenses to other like-minded congressmen – right on the actual floor of the House of Representatives – precisely while they were voting on agricultural subsidies for tobacco farmers. That’s chutzpah.

While Boehner is no longer handing out those tobacco cheques to fellow congressmen, he maintains close ties to a platoon of lobbyists and his former aides who work with some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R J Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS. Over the years, these people have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, afforded him rides on corporate jets, spent time with him at golf resorts and are now at the forefront of fund-raising efforts for his “Boehner for Speaker” campaign, an effort soliciting cheques of up to $37,800 each, the legal maximum. And Boehner has continued to schmooze with business leaders and lobbyists for banks, tobacco companies and all those other friends of ordinary people. These ties are so deep that this claque even has a Capitol Hill nickname – “Boehner Land.”

House of Representatives minority leader Republican Congressman John Boehner is from an Ohio district that includes rural and suburban areas adjacent to the cities of Cincinnati and Dayton, as well as broad swathes of the American agricultural heartland that could have come right out of the film, “Field of Dreams”. With a background seemingly drawn from one of those films about small-town Midwestern American life, Boehner rose up through the ranks in a small packaging materials business before he became its president. He then made the jump to politics, starting at the county council level, moving to the state legislature and then on to the House of Representatives two decades ago.
In his early years in Congress, Boehner was something of a “Young Turk”, taking on the House establishment to root out some of those small corruptions that helped give Congress a reputation for honesty that is just marginally ahead of used-car salesmen and personal-injury lawyers.

Over time, however, Boehner became a leading member of the congressional establishment, building the ties to corporate interests that made him a star pupil in the “to get along, you gotta go along” school of congressional leadership. When Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, together with Newt Gingrich, Boehner was part of the effort to make the Contract with America a centrepiece of Republican efforts to outflank Bill Clinton and the Democrats, and seize control of the discussion about what government should be. Boehner became the House of Representatives Republican majority leader in 2006 after then-leader Tom DeLay resigned after being indicted on criminal charges and when the Democrats again gained a majority in the House of Representatives in 2006, Boehner became minority leader.

Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Boehner has become a vociferous enforcer of Republican Party loyalty, keeping the party’s congressmen and women united in opposition to virtually any Democratic proposal. Formal party discipline in the American Congress is not guaranteed and so party leaders always work hard – using rewards, punishments and not a little guile – to keep their membership voting together. The Democrats usually have much less luck in this regard than Republicans. “United” and “Democrats” are two words rarely used together in American political discourse.

Over the years, Boehner has been praised by leading newspapers near his district. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, said he “has perfected the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable”. But despite this praise, Boehner is usually seen as a hard-core, pro-business conservative who has voted with his party fully 95% of the time. Over the past two years, Boehner has reached out to tighten his connections with the Tea Party-ers and his record as a representative who has not supported earmarks and who favours lower taxes should play well with those disenchanted with Washington.

Four years earlier, Boehner issued a kind of political values credo when he wrote that on national security issues, voters “have a choice between a Republican Party that understands the stakes and is dedicated to victory, and a Democrat Party with a non-existent national security policy that sheepishly dismisses the challenges of a post-9/11 world and is all too willing to concede defeat on the battlefield in Iraq.”

More recently, Boehner has been highly critical of Obama's proposals such as the environmental carbon “cap and trade” plan and he opposed the healthcare reform package, saying that if Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 2010, he would do whatever it takes to stop it, including zeroing out salary payments for plan administrators. Not surprisingly, he has also opposed the stimulus package as well, on budgetary grounds, advocating instead an across-the-board spending freeze. Most recently, however, he has signalled possible support for a middle-class tax cut, something that may complicate Democratic Party efforts to portray Boehner as the stone-faced image of a man opposed to helping people struggling in the current economic times.

Over the years, too, Boehner has even tried to walk right on top of that so-called “third rail” of American politics – advocating major cuts in social security pensions, pushing the retirement age up to 70, restricting cost-of-living increases and means-testing the benefits on the basis of income.

Some of this could be called pretty courageous stuff, even leadership, but he’s also had that business with those tobacco lobby cheques. Ironically, this came up on one of America’s influential Sunday political talk shows, when veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer chided Boehner about his smoking habit. The exchange is worth recalling at length for its insights into how personal issues now crisscross with political ones.

Schieffer: Mr. Boehner, I’m going to ask you this question because I’m not objective about this. I’m a cancer survivor. I used to be a heavy smoker. Do you still smoke?

Boehner: I do.

Schieffer: You have taken $340,000 from the tobacco industry. They’ve been the largest contributor to your political campaigns over the years. How do you square that with the fact that cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in this country – 435,000 people, their deaths are linked to cancer. That’s one in five. How do you – how do you justify that in your own mind.

Boehner: Bob, tobacco is a legal product in America and the American people have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to partake or not. The American people ought to have the right to make those decisions on their own.

Schieffer: Well, I mean they have a right to shoot themselves if they choose to, but I mean shouldn’t we do something to try to encourage them not to?

Boehner: Well, listen. I wish I didn’t have this bad habit and it is a bad habit. You’ve had it. You’ve dealt with it. But it’s something that I choose to do. And, you know, at some point, maybe I’ll decide I’ve had enough of it.

Noting Barack Obama is also known to smoke, Schieffer suggested that if Boehner becomes Speaker of the House, the two might forge a bipartisan deal to quit.

Schieffer: You could set a good example for the country.

Although the transcript doesn’t say so, those who saw the exchange say the look on Boehner’s face suggested that at this point he would rather have been talking about almost anything and anybody else, even incomprehensible intricacies in the US tax code.

On his own website Boehner describes himself in somewhat more heroic terms than most of his political opponents might use. The website says in part that Boehner is:

“…a straight-shooting and relentless advocate for freedom and security. As House Republican Leader and a staunch opponent of pork-barrel politics, John is fighting to eliminate wasteful spending, create jobs, and balance the federal budget without raising taxes.  He has challenged Republicans in the 111th Congress to be not just the party of ‘opposition,’ but the party of better solutions to the challenges facing the American people.”

And, of course, a fighter for all the American jobs in the tobacco industry. Thank you for smoking, John! DM


For more, read Wikipedia, the Boehner website, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times and for a complete look at Congressman Boehner’s voting record, go to The Washington Post.

Photo: U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) gestures as he addresses his weekly news conference with Capitol Hill reporters in Washington, March 19, 2010. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Politics


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