The Most Underestimated Man in DC?

The most underestimated man in Washington, D.C. has a very powerful position, and in an era of political stalemate in the nation’s capital, he has accomplished a relatively great deal.  Nevertheless, his political opponents try to dismiss him, many of his supposed political allies try to belittle him, and most in the media just ignore him.

He is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, third in line for the presidency, and perhaps the most adult figure now in a city where grown-ups routinely act as children.

He even has a notable life story to tell, but since he is not running for president, nor has he ever expressed an interest in doing so, it is treated as just another bio and not enlarged into a mythic tale.

John Boehner was the second of 12 children from a small Midwestern town in Ohio, the son of a bartender/bar owner, and the first in his family to attend college.  That was Xavier University.  After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy but was soon sent home with a bad back.  He worked for a small business, got himself elected to the Ohio state legislature, and finally challenged a controversial incumbent congressman of his own party and won.  He has won ten elections since then, either by landslides or with no opposition.

An ally of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, he won a surprise election to the caucus leadership, then became majority leader.  After the GOP lost their majority in 2006, he was elected minority leader until 2010, when a Republican landslide brought his party back to power in the House and put Boehner into the speakership.

Lacking a majority in the U.S. Senate, and with a Democrat in the White House, Boehner began his speakership cautiously.  His GOP majority in the House was divided and unruly.  His colleagues, over his advice, shut down the government in 2013 when the Senate and President Obama would not compromise on their differences, and the result was a public relations disaster.  Various factions erupted in the House caucus, and the new Speaker was often criticized for not doing more.

In 2014, with the midterm elections imminent, Mr. Boehner steered the House from another shutdown.  The GOP then increased its majority in the House and won back control of the Senate.  Now controlling both houses of Congress, many conservatives had hopes of quickly repealing Obamacare, drastically cutting government domestic spending, dramatically reducing entitlements, and lowering taxes.  Lacking large enough majorities to overturn President Obama’s certain vetoes of these  measures, stalemate in Washington, D.C. has remained.  Both Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been criticized by some conservatives and some GOP governors for not doing enough with their majorities to pass the Republican agenda.

As he has every August for years, Speaker Boehner makes a month-long bus tour through the country to raise funds for his PAC (that funds close House races), recruit challengers to Democratic incumbents, raise money for his GOP colleagues, and rally Republicans in his role as the most powerful elected Republican in Washington, D.C.

This year, Boehner has a much more aggressive and positive message than usual.  Conceding that the power of Republicans to change many Obama administration policies is limited, Mr. Boehner has nevertheless claimed many conservative accomplishments for the GOP.  Some of them are notable, although the liberal media has done little reporting of them, including limiting tax increases; supporting giving law enforcement new tools to fight human trafficking; enacting reforms in job training, student loan programs, the Veterans Administration, and Medicare; stopping the transfer of terrorist detainees into the U.S.; improving U.S. foreign intelligence capabilities; passing the most pro-life legislation in history; approving new resources to improve veterans’ health care; banning earmarks; enabling the U.S. to become the world’s largest energy producer; and cutting governments spending by $2.1 trillion.

Two GOP initiatives were of larger impact.  First, Speaker Boehner led efforts to enact more than $2.9 trillion savings in entitlement reform and, in rare cooperation with President Obama, passed trade agreements and gave the president trade authority.  The latter was opposed by most Democrats but was passed mostly with GOP votes and sent to the president for his signature.

Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell assert that they have led a do-something Congress, but underscoring the speaker’s message on his bus tour this year is the central point that major change and reform cannot occur without a Republican president.

Recently, Mr. Boehner led bipartisan congressional tours to the Middle East and Central Europe to reassure our friends and allies that the U.S. stands behind them.  While not directly criticizing current U.S. foreign policy (which Mr. Boehner clearly feels is not very reassuring to those friends and allies), the speaker (who is not known for previous foreign policy acumen) proved to be a skillful spokesman and diplomat.  His trips were largely ignored by the U.S. media on both the right and the left, but they were clearly well-received abroad.  Earlier in the year, Speaker Boehner took the initiative of inviting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress, a move bitterly opposed by President Obama, who attempted to stop it.  Mr. Boehner prevailed, however, and Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance was a political triumph.

Not much of a public orator, Mr. Boehner remained on the public sidelines in his first years as speaker, making few appearances on talk shows and failing to develop an effective communications effort from his office.  Individuals and small groups in his own caucus frequently criticized and challenged him, but only recently has he insisted on more loyalty and support from his colleagues, removing some members from chairmanships who refused to be part of his leadership team.  He has beefed up his communications efforts, increasingly appeared on talk shows, and been an outspoken critic of the Democrats, including especially Mrs. Clinton.

Although another government shutdown is looming, it is doubtful that Mr. Boehner and his colleague Mr. McConnell will let that happen.  It was avoided in 2013, and voters rewarded that in 2014.  With the all-important 2016 presidential and congressional elections only a year away, the GOP leadership seems to know better than to appear responsible for shutting the government down again.

When it became clear that John Boehner was going to become speaker in 2010, I remember sitting with Newt Gingrich and asking him if he thought Boehner was ready to assume that office.  “No,” the former speaker said, adding quickly, “But neither was I.”

The speakership could be one of the most under-appreciated high offices in government, and it is certainly one of the most difficult to perform well in, having constantly to keep often disagreeing members together to vote on policies that serve the larger needs of the nation.  It requires patience, strategic skill, and a strong commitment to the national interest.  This is especially true when a member of another party sits in the White House.  Unlike during the last part of Newt Gingrich’s speakership, the Democratic president in 2015 is unwilling very often to negotiate and compromise, and the result is prolonged and frustrating stalemate.

Considering all of this, whether or not one agrees or disagrees with his politics, John Boehner has risen from his small-town roots to become one of the most effective and statesmanlike House speakers in modern times. It appears that it was a very good thing that he grew up with eleven brothers and sisters.

If you experience technical problems, please write to