So Far, Boehner Is an Able Adversary for Obama

Stuart Rothenberg January 26, 2011 · 10:52 AM EST

If the producers of AMC’s popular “Mad Men” television series ever need someone to replace Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Don Draper, they need look no further than Speaker John Boehner.

The 11-term Ohio Republican, 61, is significantly older than Draper (Hamm is just short of his 40th birthday), but he has the advertising executive’s smoothness, confidence, good looks and cigarette habit. And Boehner looks every bit as at ease with a drink in his hand as Draper does.

Actors and politicians have something in common. They play different roles at different times in their careers.

Boehner was handed a new role a couple of months ago when his party won a majority in the House, and that new role will put him right behind President Barack Obama tonight when the president delivers the State of the Union address.

So far, Boehner is off to a strong start in his new position, but challenges remain.

He has sounded just the right notes of humility and leadership, and so far he has shown his respect for tea party concerns without handing over the reins of the Republican Party to the loudest, most unreasonable voices in that anti-establishment movement.

Boehner’s roots are in the reliably Republican Cincinnati suburbs. He was born in Reading (population just over 11,000 in 2000) and lives in West Chester (population 55,000 in 2000). He’s a blue-collar guy who looks so Don Draper-like that his 1990 Republican primary opponent described Boehner as “an immature yuppie.”

Boehner has the ability to understand — and reflect — the anger of small-government conservatives because he was once one of them.

A former chairman of the combative Conservative Opportunity Society within the Republican Conference, Boehner broke into Congress as a reformer and an advocate of limiting Congressional pay increases. In his first year in Congress, he earned a zero rating from both the AFL-CIO and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

Boehner’s roots, as well as his fundamental conservatism, have helped him connect with the GOP class of 2010, many of whom were elected in ruby red districts or from rural and suburban districts in the South, Midwest and Mountain states. He has been able to earn the confidence of even the most conservative freshmen.

But Boehner is no bomb thrower.

He is a veteran legislator with strong Washington, D.C., connections — to his colleagues on Capitol Hill, to the business community and to lobbyists. He has worked with Democrats on legislation, including the No Child Left Behind Act, and he is savvy enough to understand that many voters recoil from the crushingly partisan rhetoric on which some Republicans and Democrats rely.

Still, Boehner will need some luck to guide his party through some rough waters in the days ahead, waters that Speakers from Joe Cannon through Tip O’Neill, Tom Foley and even Newt Gingrich didn’t have to deal with.

The power of political parties took a hit with the growth of candidate-centered campaigns starting in the 1970s. That is when candidates started to raise their own campaign cash and put together their own media campaigns, taking much of the responsibility away from party organizations.

And now, the rise of the tea party movement and “outside” groups, such as Crossroads GPS and American Future Fund, have further diluted the importance of the parties.

No, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aren’t close to being irrelevant, not as long as they continue to spend tens of millions of dollars in independent expenditures. But the existence of well-funded outside groups able to send out press releases around the clock and buy TV time creates a different dynamic than in the past.

For Boehner, the existence of tea party groups watching every move that he makes — and that each of his new Members makes — is a complicating factor.

Many of the newly elected GOP freshmen came to D.C. believing that the town is corrupt and existing political leaders in both parties bear some responsibility for more increased federal spending, bigger government and the ballooning debt.

In fact, during their first meeting in Washington, many members of the class of 2010 sounded like a bunch of revolutionaries, I’m told. But after they had heard from Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership, they apparently understood that anger is no basis for governing.

Boehner’s decision to play down the celebration on election night and to talk about the job facing Congress was smart. Even smarter has been his recent effort, echoed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), to lower expectations, pointing out to conservatives that the House Republicans’ agenda can be stymied by Senate Democrats or by the White House.

Democrats, of course, have already criticized the Speaker for attending a D.C. political reception at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting rather than flying to Arizona to attend a Tucson memorial, and everything that the Speaker does will be dissected again and again in and by the press. You can bet more criticism will be coming his way.

And yet, Boehner seems to be at the right place at the right time for his party. He has a difficult task ahead, but he may just be able to keep his troops in line — most of the time.