The Sackcloth and Ashes Speech

by Rich Lowry

Has there ever been a less triumphalist inaugural speech from a new House speaker? The most powerful metaphor in Boehner’s speech just now was the reference to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. “The ashes remind us that life in all its forms is fragile — our time on this Earth, fleeting. As the ashes are delivered, we hear those humbling words: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” This in a speech putting a punctuation mark on a historic Republican sweep! The new Republican majority, or at least that portion of it that has been around for a while, is haunted by the last Republican majority, by its revolutionary promises that ended in a whimper in 2006. Boehner knows that the power given to Republicans is the result of a great grass-roots movement that rose up outside of the GOP, and has just seen the hubris of Nancy Pelosi swiftly and decisively punished. So modesty was the order of the day. He made a strange promise for a legislator: Congress would do less, rather than more. The bills will be smaller, the process will be slower, and there will be more open debate, even if it makes for less efficiency. He emphasized the new majority’s openness to the battle of ideas and his belief that “we will not always get it right.” He sounded like the Scott Brown of January 2010 in his references to the “People’s House.” Political office is always only on loan from the public and its trust has to be constantly earned. Boehner is not a natural orator. There was no slickness to his delivery and a lot of awkwardness. On this day at least, it didn’t detract from the message. Will Republicans backslide on some of these assurances under the pressure of high-stakes politics? Surely. But Boehner showed Republicans understand the message of the election. “Let us now move forward humble in our demeanor, steady in our principles, and dedicated to proving worthy of the trust and confidence that has been placed in us,” he said near the end. If they don’t, the dust beckons.