Politics & Policy

Basic to Basics With Boehner

What will new leadership mean for the House GOP?

“Whoever wins this race is going to have one of the toughest jobs in Washington,” a congressional staffer close to Ohio congressman John Boehner told me as we waited for the final results of yesterday’s Republican House leadership elections. In other words, Boehner wanted to win. But he also knew that if he won, it would be his job to save a Republican majority that after a decade in power has become nearly as beleaguered and cynical as the Democratic majority it replaced in 1994.

#ad#Ready or not, it’s his job now. The House Republican Conference voted 122 to 109 against Tom DeLay #2 Roy Blunt, making Boehner the new House majority leader. According to conventional wisdom, the Republicans elected Boehner in order to make a clean break from DeLay’s tarnished tenure–and Boehner, though he has friends on K Street, is a different kind of operator. It’s also accurate to say that these lawmakers gave the job of political fixer to the guy who ran the best campaign.

Boehner started his campaign as soon as Tom DeLay stepped down–unlike John Shadegg, who waited a week before getting into the race. Shadegg, an Arizonan with an impeccable voting record, got numerous endorsements from conservative think tanks, bloggers, and journalists, but he couldn’t catch up to Blunt or Boehner in terms of publicly declared supporters in the House.

Boehner sensed the enthusiasm for reform in the endorsements for Shadegg but knew he had a head-start, so he did everything he could to make their campaigns indistinguishable. Instead of a three-way race, Boehner made it a race between the status quo, played by Roy Blunt, and change. He steadily and consistently added to his list of supporters, staying ahead of Shadegg but joining him in challenging Blunt to a public debate. Finally, he paid close attention to the priorities of the Republican Study Committee–a group of policy-oriented conservative lawmakers who wanted assurances that the next leader had a strategy for shrinking the budget and defining marriage.

Meanwhile, Blunt ran an ineffective campaign. He overestimated his support. His staff got into public fights with conservative bloggers. He refused to debate the other candidates and didn’t fill out a Republican Study Committee questionnaire. He also couldn’t help being the status-quo candidate at a time when the status quo is not good for Republicans.

On the first ballot, Blunt failed to get the 117 votes he needed to win the election outright. Instead he got 110, with Boehner receiving 79 votes, and Shadegg snagging 40. There were two write-in votes for Jim Ryun of Kansas in what was probably a ploy to get Shadegg’s name on the second ballot (only the last-place candidate is dropped). But Shadegg graciously withdrew, and the subsequent 109-122 vote indicated that Boehner won all of his supporters. Boehner’s unofficial alliance with Shadegg paid huge dividends on the second ballot.

According to congressional staffers who were inside the room, even Boehner supporters appeared shocked when the final results were announced. Outside in the rotunda of the Cannon building, Boehner staffers embraced and received congratulations as news started to spread. Rep. Jeff Flake, one of the first members to emerge after the vote, told reporters, “I thought Paul Ryan’s seconding speech for Shadegg was the most effective. It was meant for Shadegg but in the end probably helped turn the tide for Boehner. He basically said, ‘When you look yourself in the mirror, you have to answer: Am I nominating somebody whose philosophies I came here to advance, or is it enough that I voted for the first one who came to me?’”

Shadegg came out moments later and announced to the press, “I have no regrets. I got in this to push an agenda of reform, and I think we did that. I think we caused a big change as the race went forward and it caused us to slow down and think about where we need to go.”

Shadegg gave up his position as chair of the Republican Policy Committee to focus on the leadership race; it’s a decision he doesn’t regret. His staffers say that in the coming months he will use the publicity he has gotten from this race to push for the big reforms–like changing the outdated federal budget process–that he put at the heart of his campaign.

As for Blunt, he maintained his position as majority whip despite some grumbling that he did not follow Shadegg’s example and give it up during the race. A call for full leadership elections, including elections for a new whip, had failed by a thin margin the previous day, leading many to wonder whether there would be a renewed call for Blunt to step down after he lost to Boehner. There are probably several reasons why this didn’t happen. Blunt took it like a man (his concession speech got a standing ovation). He has made a lot of friends in the House and generally seems like a good guy. Also, members don’t want to shake things up too much. Blunt has an operation in place–one that produced a win for Republicans on the deficit-reduction bill Wednesday. It is also possible that Boehner dissuaded members from calling for whip elections because he felt it would be too divisive. After all, it is now Boehner’s job to rebuild a party that has to be unified if it is to reassert its defining principles and get reelected in 2006.

How he goes about that is unclear at this point. At a press conference following the elections, the new leadership team announced that they would meet at 10 A.M. Friday to start planning for the year ahead. To succeed as House majority leader, Boehner should implement the same strategy he used so successfully in getting elected to the post: Pay careful attention to the concerns of all those conservatives who were energized by Shadegg’s campaign, and begin the difficult job of finding within the current Republican majority the reform party that took over Washington 12 years ago.

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s Media Blog.

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