(Over?)Learning the Lessons from Gingrich

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Michael Grunwald and I teamed up to write this week’s cover story, a profile of the speaker-in-waiting, John Boehner.

It was striking in trying to coax Boehner into speaking to us – he never did – how much he wanted to avoid the limelight. The victory, his staff said, was not about him, but about a movement and about Barack Obama. By contrast, in 1994 when TIME approached Newt Gingrich about a cover, he allowed a reporter – the intrepid Karen Tumulty – to shadow him for a week. At the time Bill Clinton was more than happy to let Gingrich take center stage, and all the arrows. Boehner is not making that mistake twice. “I am fortunate enough to serve as Speaker of the House, we will run a much different kind of Congress – one that is humbler, more transparent, and respects the will and intelligence of the people,” Boehner said in a letter today to his colleagues. Humble, not a word Gingirch used much in the heady days following the 1994 victory.

Boehner is keenly aware of the potential for overreach and he’s going to have his hands full keeping his conference reined in. Who will be the first freshman to call for President Obama’s impeachment? Boehner is cool where Gingrich was hot. Boehner’s an institutionalist, bent on decentralizing the power Gingrich consolidated in the Speaker’s office. Gingrich was an ideologue bomb thrower; Boehner’s a pragmatic deal-maker.

That said, the same words could be applied to the Tea Party: outsider, ideologue, hot headed. Just as Obama overlearned Clinton’s lessons on health care reform, so too could Boehner in this revolution. The Tea Party wants blood and if they don’t get enough pounds of Democratic flesh, they have no compunctions about eating their own.