Articles

Boehner's Surprising Success

August 24, 2011

The politician who has done more than any other to set the national agenda this year will soon return to Washington. It is not President Barack Obama. It's House Speaker John Boehner.

After his annual August bus tour to help re-elect House Republicans, Mr. Boehner will spend a short vacation next week at his house in West Chester, Ohio, where he'll relax by cutting his lawn with something not often seen on Martha's Vineyard: a Toro push mower.

It's been a remarkable run for Mr. Boehner. It began even before he became speaker, during last December's lame-duck session, when outnumbered House Republicans outmaneuvered Democrats and Mr. Obama on taxes.

Mr. Boehner won by shifting the debate from whether wealthier Americans should pay their "fair share" to whether it is wise to raise taxes amid high joblessness and sluggish growth. It worked. Mr. Obama started by calling for higher taxes. He ended by signing a two-year extension of all the Bush tax cuts.

In February, the speaker and his new House majority cut Mr. Obama's planned 2011 budget by $61 billion and then, in April, slashed the government's spending authority by $38 billion.

Then there was the debt-ceiling battle. Mr. Obama started by insisting on a "clean debt-ceiling vote," meaning an increase without spending cuts.

Mr. Boehner simply refused to accept the president's claim that not a dime of spending could be cut. Instead the speaker calmly and firmly stated his conditions: Any debt-ceiling increase must be "accompanied by meaningful action to cut spending." And in a May speech to the Economic Club of New York, he laid down his marker: Any debt-limit increase must be paired with bigger spending cuts and no tax hikes.

On the defensive, Mr. Obama abandoned his demand for a clean debt-ceiling increase and began advocating "a balanced approach" of spending cuts and tax increases. But Mr. Boehner rallied his colleagues and once again Mr. Obama came out the loser.

Mr. Boehner may not be an inspiring orator, but he has moved the country and Congress in his direction. He has succeeded in large part because he had a more modest view of the post than his recent predecessors. In a private dinner last year in Texas, I was struck by his complaint that only a handful of people mattered in the Democrat-run House—namely, the Speaker and four or five other members. This wasn't the way the Founders intended the House to operate, Mr. Boehner said, with more than a little passion in his voice.

Accordingly, he has ceded power to congressional committees so more of the House's work is done there. He has widened the theaters of operation for younger ambitious House Republican leaders. Mr. Boehner excels at persuading members rather than bribing them with earmarks or threatening them with retaliation. He has long opposed the former; the second is not his nature. All this has paradoxically strengthened his hand.

So Washington's agenda this fall will reflect the priorities not of the glitzy Mr. Obama but of the modest, well-grounded Mr. Boehner. Prodded by the speaker, Mr. Obama has already pledged to send to the Hill for consideration three major trade agreements that have languished since the president's inauguration. The annual budget battle will give Mr. Boehner and the House GOP more opportunities to cut spending as the 12 separate appropriations bills needed to fund the government move through Congress.

Then there is the "super committee" formed as part of the debt-ceiling agreement. While it may not meet its mandated target of $1.5 trillion more in cuts, its discussions will take place on Mr. Boehner's terms: where to cut rather than where to tax.

When the president lays out his latest stimulus plan next month, it is Mr. Boehner's challenge to make certain Congress doesn't substitute more spending on food stamps and unemployment benefits for measures that will actually spur job creation and economic growth.

Rarely does the leader of one branch of Congress become the political sun around which the president revolves. Time and again this year, the 61st speaker of the House has out-thought, out-negotiated and outmaneuvered America's 44th president. And Mr. Obama, frustrated and increasingly unsteady, is losing his cool. On his recent Midwest bus trip, for example, the president tried making a virtue of impotence, blaming others—including the GOP House—for his failures.

These are the tactics of a politician who sees power slipping away. Mr. Boehner's influence, on the other hand, increases with every victory.

Who woulda thunk it?

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.

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