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Within His Grasp Within His Grasp

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Cover Story

Within His Grasp

Republicans have all but crowned John Boehner the next speaker. But some might be surprised at what he plans to do with the office.

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Rep. John Boehner is interviewed in his Capitol Hill office on March 10.(Liz Lynch)

Updated at 1 p.m. on October 29.

For six hours last Saturday, top Republican strategists huddled in the offices of the National Republican Congressional Com­mittee for their last ATW, or “around the world” trip, before the midterm elections. The strategists analyzed every competitive House race, reviewed polling data, scrutinized voter-intensity models, and made final decisions about 11th-hour fundraising, TV buys, and headliner travel.

 

The scheduled three-hour session began at 11 a.m., with eight members of the NRCC senior staff presiding in the second-floor meeting room. Leaders of regional teams were brought in one at a time, and field operatives jumped on conference lines. But at 2 p.m., the strategists were barely halfway through the map because so many races—more than 100—were in play and required attention. When the meeting finally broke up at 5 p.m., no one would say aloud what the underlying evidence revealed—at least 30 Democratic seats were already won and as many 65 seats might be winnable. That night, the NRCC relayed word to Minority Leader John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will become speaker if his party gains 39 seats or more on Tuesday: The “world” looked like a place where—using cautious assumptions, and conservative polling and intensity metrics—Republicans would emerge from the November midterms with a net gain of 47 to 52 House seats.

This final preelection assessment was the last big step in Boehner’s dogged two-year pursuit of the House majority. In February 2009, when the GOP’s prospects were dimmest, he backed an audacious public claim by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the NRCC chairman, that he could put 80 Democratic House seats in play for the 2010 midterms. Rank-and-file members and many astute political analysts considered the claim absurd. In a December 2009 meeting at the NRCC headquarters, Sessions proudly proclaimed that he had recruited enough candidates to meet the 80-seat “in-play” threshold. “That’s great,” Boehner said flatly. “But what are you doing to get to 100 seats?”

Boehner first came to Congress in 1990 and enjoyed what he calls now a “front-row seat” for the last Republican-wave victory, the Newt Gingrich-led assault on entrenched Democratic power (40 years of continuous House majorities) that swept the GOP to control of Congress in 1994.

 

But even though that triumph is now remembered as a revolution, Boehner would prefer that if Republicans recapture the House, this ascendency unfold as an evolution. The 2010 agenda is not a Contract With America, like its 1994 predecessor, but merely a “Pledge to America.” Although this document pays homage to that contract, Boehner, if given the chance, intends to lead more cautiously and—significantly—more slowly, than Gingrich did. He will set no audacious legislative deadlines (the 1994 contract required moving 10 separate pieces of legislation in the first 100 days of the 104th Congress) and will enact no radical new technological or procedural reforms.

Boehner told National Journal that he’s “learned a thing or two” about how to wield power and how to avoid mistakes, not only those of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but also those of the GOP revolutionaries under Gingrich—of which Boehner was most certainly one.

But the Ohioan’s ability to apply those lessons will depend on how well he can sell them to a squad of aggressive new members who may resist deferring to complex procedural strategies or such long-term political calculations as coping with the realities of Senate filibusters and President Obama’s veto pen. A stark reality for Boehner and the rest of his team will be the need for a second pledge—this one from what is likely to be a massive freshman class that it is willing to be led and that Boehner and his team are its true leaders.

To achieve this, Boehner has thought a great deal about the past and how to adapt to a political future that crackles with possibility and peril. Among the insights driving this rethink is the embedded sense among his closest advisers that the era of long-lasting House majorities is over, undone by the fluidity of party loyalties, the vagaries of independent voting habits, and the diffusion of media power and visibility.

 

It is not lost on this team that Democrats held the House for 40 years, before Republicans captured it for 12. Democrats now stand on the edge of losing control after just four years. The cycles are spinning more quickly. Boehner’s answer, paradoxically, is to proceed more slowly and methodically than Republicans did the last time they captured the House in the landslide of 1994.

Boehner has declined to discuss a possible GOP takeover in recent weeks. He denied National Journal’s requests for an in-person interview but agreed to answer questions by e-mail. His responses, and interviews with more than 18 other House Republicans, senior GOP staff, and K Street lobbyists, clearly indicate that the party’s senior leadership has already thought extensively about how it will wield power if, as most analysts now expect, it recaptures the House.

This article appears in the October 27, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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