Baltimore, Md.–With the election of Tom DeLay’s replacement as House majority leader just days away, Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment of politics–that one should first speak no ill of a fellow Republican–was temporarily suspended as the three candidates for the position took swings at each other at a gathering of conservative congressmen in Baltimore yesterday. Each candidate came to the retreat to convince the 60-plus members of the House Republican Study Committee in attendance that he is the right man for the job. But in between presentations to the group, each man stopped by the pressroom to explain why his opponents are the wrong men to lead the House GOP into the 2006 elections.
John Boehner–currently running second in the race as measured by publicly declared supporters–stopped by first, and it didn’t take long for a reporter to ask him about the rumors that frontrunner Roy Blunt has based his campaign on personal favors and power politics.
“Mr. Boehner, you mentioned that you’ve only made one promise to members–that you would be a good majority leader,” the reporter asked. “Do you think Mr. Blunt has made some promises to members to get votes?”
Boehner grinned as the roomful of reporters laughed. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t know any more than that.”
“Well how do you know that?” the reporter asked.
“I’ve had members suggest things to me,” Boehner said.
John Shadegg–trailing both Blunt and Boehner in publicly declared supporters but considered the favorite of conservatives–also hinted at Blunt’s alleged deal-making when he spoke to the press yesterday evening.
“I do not have information adequate to provide you proof of any deals,” Shadegg said. Choosing his words carefully, he said, “I think it is a matter of record that discussions were held which led to blocs of votes being delivered.”
“On one day… there were six or seven votes locked up for a candidate. On the next day, there are 14 or 15 votes locked up for that candidate, and they all happen to be from one place,” Shadegg said. “You draw your own conclusions.”
Blunt took a different approach during his chat with the press, projecting the amicable confidence of a front-runner. He told reporters, “I made a commitment to myself when I started making phone calls on this race that I wasn’t going to make a phone call to a member that I didn’t say something good about John Boehner, and when John Shadegg got in the race I added that to it. But I believe I’ve done that in every case. What we do is so much more important than who we are.”
But as the questions got tougher, so did Blunt. When a reporter told Blunt what Boehner had implied about backroom deals, Blunt said, “John Boehner said that?” The reporter nodded. “In front of all these reporters?”
“He didn’t give us any examples,” another reporter added.
“I don’t think… there are no examples,” Blunt said. “That was actually the second thing I was gonna do, after I decided to say something nice about John Boehner every single phone call.”
And when asked whether Boehner and Shadegg had a point when they asked him to give up his position as House majority whip while he campaigns for majority leader (such hedging puts Blunt in a position–win or lose–to exact retribution against members who don’t vote for him), Blunt took a camouflaged swipe at Shadegg, who resigned his position as chair of the House Republican Policy Committee when he entered the majority leader race.
“You know, in the policy committee, we basically lost the first six months of the policy committee… because Mr. [Chris] Cox left [to become the chairman of the SEC], and now we’re going to have somebody halfway through the Congress have to start that process all over again in a way that I think is disadvantageous to the process,” Blunt said.
When a reporter (me) told Shadegg what Blunt had said, he laughed. “I certainly do not think it is unfair for me to have stepped out of policy and let that be a clean campaign for the people who want to compete. I am extremely proud of the fact that I must have done something right in the job, because I won it unopposed, and now there are four candidates that want the job. So I think that says that it is a job that we’ve made relevant, and a committee that we’ve made very appealing to help lead the conference.”
“The notion that the committee has suffered because I resigned is simply wrong,” Shadegg said. “I think that the right and honorable thing to do is, if you want another job, to put yourself out there for that job and not try to hold a second position.”
Although the dynamics of this race mean that the first ballot will be Blunt vs. an unofficial Boehner/Shadegg alliance, Boehner and Shadegg are still campaigning against each other to win a spot on the second ballot against Blunt. When I asked Shadegg why members should pick him over Boehner, he said, “John Boehner and I are closer on the issue of reforms, but I think if you look down the list of what I’ve said I would do and what he’s said he would do, I think there’s a difference. I think if you look at the ties between the other two candidates and K Street, there’s quite a stark difference and that’s just a fact.”
“If the Congress is looking to send a very clear message–’We’re going to pick the candidate least tied to K Street, least tied to the lobbyist community’–I don’t think that’s much of a debate.”
Anticipating those criticisms, Boehner addressed them in his press conference. “Yes, I have relationships with K Street. They’re all honorable, above-board and ethical. And frankly, I’m proud of the relationships that I have with those who work with us. You can’t move major legislative initiatives without building coalitions and without doing serious communications.”
The same thing could be said for House leadership races.
–Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s Media Blog.