There haven’t been too many good days for John Boehner since the 2012 elections that kept him in the position as speaker of the House. In fact, the headaches were evident last January, during the balloting for speaker itself. Ten Republicans refused to vote for Boehner, who won a second term by only three votes. He had more defections than Newt Gingrich ever had.
Gingrich of course is that guy who battled President Bill Clinton over countless budget and policy battles, two of which led to shutdowns of the federal government, the last one for 21 days between Dec. 16, 1995 and Jan. 6, 1996. The Republican Party got the blame for that, and while they held onto their House majority for a dozen more years, the GOP brand was taking its share of hits. Gingrich himself, for an assortment of reasons, relinquished the speakership as well as his own House seat after the 1998 elections.
The parallels between Gingrich and Boehner have been in the news of late, now that Boehner’s Republican majority in the House forced another shutdown, this one lasting 16 days. There are similarities between the two men, to be sure, but the differences, especially in leadership, are dramatic. The question is whether Boehner also decides to walk away.
Any mention of the man from Georgia is instrumental in understanding the factors that led to Boehner’s rise in the House. First elected to Congress from southwest Ohio in 1990, Boehner became an early and fervid ally of Gingrich. As a leading critic of the House Bank Scandal and congressional pay raises, Boehner, with the backing of Gingrich, won the post of conference committee chair in 1994, as the Newt-led Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
In nominally leading his party during what has been charitably described as a mistaken move to shut down the government rather than fund President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act, Boehner has been compared to what Speaker Gingrich did in accomplishing the 1995-96 shutdown. But there are differences. For whatever Gingrich attempted to achieve, he had his party united behind him. There were no public second-guessing from his GOP colleagues. This was a shutdown inspired and led by Gingrich, and the GOP went along with him.
Conventional wisdom says the Republicans suffered politically back then, and they may have; Clinton, once seen as battling for relevancy and fighting desultory polling numbers, won an easy re-election in 1996. But if the public was angry at House Republicans for the shutdown and blaming them for it, it wasn’t reflected in the election results. Democrats had a net gain of just nine seats that year. That’s not a significant number, more of a correction than anything, considering the huge GOP gains two years prior.
If anything, the current situation, which ended in a complete GOP capitulation last week, was less about leadership and more of the rank and file, in this case Tea Party Republicans, leading and Boehner reluctantly following. He said from the beginning he opposed any shut down, and knew from the start that demanding defunding and/or delaying Obamacare was a doomed strategy. But he couldn’t get his own conference to come up with an alternative or agree with his course of action. His own party voted down or rejected his attempts to separate the Obamacare defunding issue from funding the government. The Tea Party folks were convinced that, once again, he was offering nothing but lip service to them; sure, let’s have another vote to repeal Obamacare. Only this time they weren’t mollified. It was time to raise the stakes.
Boehner went along and watched as his side got demolished in the final outcome. Polls showed voters giving the Republican Party record low approval numbers. A new CNN poll, released Monday, said that 54% of those surveyed opposed continued Republican control of the House and 63% said it was time for Boehner to go. Obama took his lumps as well; 52% disapprove of the job he is doing. But Obama will no longer be on the ballot. The fate of Boehner and his Republican majority will be decided by the voters come 2014.
Once upon a time, in the early stages of Boehner’s career, he might have joined theTed Cruzes of the world, hogging the cameras and demanding his way or the highway. That’s not who he is anymore. He is a more seasoned legislator, a believer of the system who desperately wanted to make things work, insisting that cooperation does not mean surrender or appeasement, while at the same time standing up to the Obama administration’s perceived excesses and working to expand his party’s majority and brand. He knows when to fight and how to pick his fights. This is not a fight he picked. In the end, as speaker of the House, he stood with his members, fought to the bitter end, and accepted defeat. But his heart may not have been in it, and one wonders how he will respond when the next crisis comes, be it the Jan. 15 deadline to (once again) fund the government or the Feb. 7deadline to (once again) raise the debt limit.
Gingrich, his initial mentor, eventually overreached, alienated his fellow Republicans and fell from power. Perhaps that was inevitable, given Gingrich’s temperament and ego. Boehner, he of considerably milder temperament and ego, has taken more hits from his own party than Gingrich ever did. One wonders how long this will continue. Or how long he will continue.
New Jersey Senate. As expected, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, was elected to the U.S. Senate on Oct. 16, defeating Republican candidate Steve Lonegan by a 55-44% margin. The special election was necessitated by the June 3death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) (see Political Junkie, 6/5/13).
Democrats had been dismayed during the latter weeks of the campaign, feeling that Booker’s celebrity and bio were being upstaged by external distractions (his resignation from a media company where he got paid millions of dollars), unforced errors (a Twitter exchange with a strip club dancer) and consistent questions about his stewardship of New Jersey’s largest city and whether Newark was improving under his watch. But Booker won comfortably, beating the conservative Lonegan, a former mayor of the borough of Bogota, in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972 (or voted in a non-incumbent Republican to the Senate since 1954). His fame is thought the be the real reason why Gov. Chris Christie (R) called for the special election to be held on a Wednesday in the middle of October – and not during the regularly scheduled election on Nov. 5, when Christie is hoping to win a landslide re-election that could give him a boost towards the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and when a ballot appearance by Booker had the potential of bringing out a large minority turnout, one that could hurt Christie’s chance of picking up more GOP seats in the state legislature.
Booker now enters the Senate with a strong national profile and expectations there is much more to come – including, at some point, a position on a future presidential ticket. His win also ends the long and distinguished Senate career of Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican who was appointed to the Senate by Christie following Lautenberg’s death and who did not seek to retain the seat.
More history. Booker becomes the fourth African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, following Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.)
How’s Bayou? Another special election is taking place in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, where GOP incumbent Rodney Alexander vacated to join the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) as veterans affairs secretary. In Saturday’s initial election, state Sen. Neil Riser and businessman Vance McAllister, both Republicans, finished atop a 14-candidate field on Saturday (10/19) and advance to a Nov. 16 runoff. Riser, who had 32% of the vote, had the backing of most of the GOP officials in the state and district, including Alexander. McAllister, a political newcomer who had 18%, ran against incumbents of both parties. Jamie Mayo, the mayor of Monroe and a Democrat, finished third with 15%. Clyde Holloway, a former GOP congressman and now a utilities regulator, came in fourth with 11%.
Leaving. Rep. Tim Griffin, an Arkansas Republican from the 2nd CD, announced 10/21 he will not seek a third term next year. Griffin first won the seat in 2010 when Rep. Vic Snyder (D) retired.
Former Speaker Tom Foley. Thomas Foley, the genial Democratic member of Congress who succeeded a disgraced Jim Wright as House speaker in 1989 – only to lose his own bid for re-election in eastern Washington in 1994 – died Friday(Oct. 18) at 84. The move from Wright, a fiery partisan deeply disliked by Republicans (and not a few Democrats), to Foley, soft-spoken and willing to talk across the aisle, was stark and welcoming to many who covered Capitol Hill. He was a decent guy who urged everyone to be treated with respect.
It was the latest in a series of advances up the Democratic hierarchy for Foley: chairman of the Agriculture Committee in 1975, appointed majority whip (under Speaker Tip O’Neill and Majority Leader Wright) in 1981, and majority leader in 1987 (following O’Neill’s retirement and Wright moving up).
The bitterness over Wright’s ethics woes – which many Democrats blamed on a witch hunt led by Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich – seemed to subside once Foley became speaker. But some Republicans had not had enough; the RNC circulated a memo that sought to portray Foley as gay, showing that Wright’s departure had not ended the acrimony.
There had been some indication in 1992 that Foley was beginning to have some electoral problems back home. But nothing prepared him for 1994, the year of the voter revolt aimed not only against the House’s Democratic majority, which had been in effect 40 years, but Foley as well, who had held his seat for 30. The fact that he fought against a Washington term-limits law, which was overwhelmingly passed by state voters, didn’t help his cause. He was narrowly defeated in November by GOP attorney George Nethercutt.
Bill Young. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who was first elected to the House from a Tampa, Fla., district in 1970 and the longest-serving current Republican member of Congress, also died on Friday. Young, who was 82, had already announced he would not seek re-election to a 23rd term in the 10th CD next year. In 1970, Young won the seat vacated by William Cramer, the GOP Senate nominee that year, and throughout his long career fell below 65% of the vote only once. A longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, he was a strong proponent of military spending. Once a GOP stronghold, the district went to Barack Obama in 2012. One of the names mentioned as a possible candidate in the (March 2014?) special election to replace Young is Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010.
The Producers. A point of personal privilege here to congratulate two people who played a huge role in advancing the Political Junkie brand and who are making or have made life-changing decisions. Evie Stone, one of the earliest and longest-serving producers of the “It’s All Politics” podcast on NPR, got married on Oct. 20; and Peter Granitz, the producer for the Political Junkie segment on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” until he left for the confines of Alaska Public Radio, gets married on the 26th. Two immensely talented people, two great friends. Congratulations to both!
Home Sweet Homeland. Here’s proof that there is no such thing as something too trivial if there is a political connection. That shady looking character who helped Nick Brody recover from gunshot wounds in Season 3’s “Homeland” (on Showtime) is played by actor Erik Todd Dellums. He is the son of former Rep. and former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.
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ON THE CALENDAR:
Nov. 5 – ELECTION DAY. Highlights: Gov. races in New Jersey and Virginia. Mayoral races in New York City and Boston, among others. GOP runoff in Alabama’s 1st CD, which was vacated by Jo Bonner (R) in August.
Nov. 16 – Runoff in Louisiana’s 5th CD to fill the vacancy left by Rodney Alexander (R), who resigned to join the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Dec. 17 – Special election in Alabama’s 1st CD.
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This Day In Campaign History: With two weeks to go before the presidential election, the Gallup Poll has the battle between Vice President Richard Nixon (R) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy (D) too close to call. The survey showed each candidate tied among likely voters with 48% each (Oct. 25, 1960).
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