Five Things Obama’s Learned about Boehner

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On the night that Republicans won control of the House, the White House Press Office came to a startling realization: They had no contact information for Speaker-to-be John Boehner. In President Obama’s first two years in office, he’d reached out to House Republicans so little that they had no reason to get to know – or even get phone numbers or e-mails for – Boehner’s staff. Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse was asked to call his fishing buddy, Nick Schaper, who was  Boehner’s new media director at the time. Schaper gave the appropriate names and numbers to Woodhouse, who then relayed them to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Oh, how the times have changed.

Obama may not exactly have Boehner on speed dial, but the two have certainly talked – and learned about each other –more in the last week than ever before. Their partnership yielded a budget deal that not only kept the government running, but was also (mostly) praised by Democrats and Republicans as a victory for both men. They aren’t as close as Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill were –as Reagan famously put it, they were “friends after 6pm” – but the relationship is increasingly cordial.

Obama isn’t the first Democrat Boehner has reached across the aisle to work with. As chairman of the Education and Work Force Committee, Boehner formed a friendship with Ted Kennedy, who sat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Their partnership not only produced the landmark No Child Left Behind education bill and a massive overhaul of the nation’s pension laws, but also a collaborative charity for DC Catholic schools – a project Boehner fought for amid recent government cuts. I can’t get inside Obama’s head, but listed below are five things I’m guessing he learned about Boehner during last week’s budget negotiations. These lessons are particularly important as both leaders turn from cutting billions of dollars to cutting trillions of dollars as they tackle long-term deficit reduction and the debt ceiling in the coming months.

  1. Brinksmanship. Boehner plays the line. As Kennedy learned, it’s not worth showing Boehner your hand until the last round because everything leading up to the deadline is just rhetoric. Congress always works better on a desperate deadline and Boehner plays this right to the edge, as he did last week, consenting to a deal with Democrats only 90 minutes before funding for the federal government was set to run out.
  2. Nothing’s settled until everything’s settled. That was a phrase heard often in the No Child Left Behind and pension negotiations. Those eager beavers, who prematurely rushed out of the room to announce a deal before one was finalized, learned not to cite final numbers until all the I’s were dotted and T’s crossed — it only made them look dumb when they had to change those figures. (Mike Enzi had the toughest time with this during the pension negotiations — every week he announced a new non-existent deal.) Obama and the Democrats learned that lesson the hard way last week.
  3. Patience. Boehner started with a two-week by two-week strategy on the 2011 budget and, even at the end, he was prepared to drag the process out for another week. He wanted another short-term extension that Obama and the Democrats rejected. He’s not about quick solutions and doesn’t fire from the hip. He knows from experience that good things come to those who wait: The pensions bill took 18 months to pass.
  4. Pragmatism. The long lead-time on the 2011 omnibus spending bill (Republicans call it a continuing resolution, but it’s really an omnibus, they just think that sounds big) helped Boehner school his freshmen in political pragmatism. The Speaker leveraged abortion and other wedge issues he never truly hoped to win in order to get more cuts. He’s not above using the cloak of ideology to get what he wants, which, in this case, was the largest amount of cuts possible.
  5. He doesn’t deal in half-measures when it comes to protecting the party line. In 2006, when GOP Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona was crusading against earmarks, then-Leader Boehner pressured him to stop embarrassing fellow Republicans and booted him off the Judiciary Committee when he refused to do so. In 2010, when the official position on pork had changed, Boehner sent a letter to Republicans warning that they would lose committee assignments if they requested earmarks.