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There may be a time when John Boehner becomes a hate figure. Say, after he loses a government-shutdown fight with the president and makes enough radioactive comments that he starts to glow — Newt Gingrich’s path to notoriety in the 1990s.
Until then, the leader of a Republican House minority that’s routinely been trampled by Democrats with their 70-vote margin is not going to make a deep impression, no matter how much President Barack Obama inveighs against his callous disregard for all that is right and good.
It must have been a sad, desultory meeting of White House strategists when they settled on an anti-Boehner campaign: “Well, we could run on our economic record, except, well . . . There’s always Obamacare, except, well . . . The change we brought to Washington? I know, I know. . . . Hey, how about that perpetually tanned Republican? Let’s run against that guy!”
The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling recently found that 42 percent of voters in Boehner’s home state of Ohio have no opinion of him. According to a Fox News poll earlier this year, 55 percent of people nationally had never heard of him. The White House figures people will hate Boehner with an unbridled passion — if only they could remember his name.
This is the very definition of sliding-off-a-cliff, grasping-at-saplings desperation. Obama traveled to Cleveland last week to give a speech responding to an economic address by Boehner there a couple of weeks prior. Boehner’s speech had mostly been ignored by the press at the time, since it hadn’t occurred to anyone that he was the pivot upon which the future of the nation would turn.
Obama excoriated Boehner for fighting against his economic policies. With a less hostile intent, this attack on Boehner could have been an advertisement for him. According to Gallup, the only major piece of Obama legislation that Boehner said “no” to that’s popular is financial reform. A majority disapproves of everything else: the stimulus, auto bailout, and health-care reform.
Never letting a White House attack line go to waste, the New York Times immediately ran a front-page article on Boehner, “A G.O.P Leader Tightly Bound to Lobbyists.” It combined nonrevelations (a pro-business Republican works with business lobbyists) with incredible claims (one anonymous lobbyist implied that Boehner opposed cap-and-trade — a policy anathema to conservative Republicans — as a favor).
The Republicanism of John Boehner is not particularly inspiring, but neither is it threatening. You’re likelier to see him at an outing at a fancy golf resort than leading a fanciful, ideological crusade. If he lacks the intellectual flair of the last Republican House minority leader who became speaker in an electoral rout, Newt Gingrich, he also lacks his manic grandiosity. He’s perfectly suited as a solid, conservative check on the overly liberal, hubristic young man who’s president of the United States.
The White House doesn’t seem to care that in sending Obama out after Boehner in attack-dog mode, it is diminishing the president. Why waste the majesty of his teleprompter on the House minority leader? This is usually the demeaning work of a chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who no one expects to rise above partisan hackery.
Obama’s political team thinks it can find some gimmicky way out of its predicament. A few months ago, it fastened on the gaffe of another Republican no one had heard of — the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — who offered an (instantly retracted) apology to BP for its treatment at the hands of the government. Democrats had barely finished congratulating themselves on their brilliance than the entire episode was forgotten.
The election is about large things: the tectonic shift to the left undertaken by Democrats during the past two years, and the enormous public reaction against it. In this environment, John Boehner is but a dot on a vast electoral tide. Obama’s focus on him speaks to a self-deluding lack of perspective. What else is new?
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.