The new speaker of the House, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, isn’t the most brilliant statesman ever to hold the job (Newt Gingrich beats him on that count), the most groundbreaking (that was Nancy Pelosi) or the most charismatic (speakers rarely score high on that scale).
But he is among the most modest, an attribute rare among politicians — and one that should come in handy in the rough — and — tumble period of divided government that lies ahead.
Ever since Boehner’s Republicans won their massive 63-seat victory in November’s midterm election, they’ve been claiming — in several different keys of conservatism — a mandate from the American people.
If you listen to some GOP House members, the voters were of one mind in demanding the repeal of President Obama’s health care law, a return to the Founding Fathers’ version of the Constitution, a stop to most environmental and business regulation, an investigation of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and a wholesale reduction in the powers of the Federal Reserve.
But Boehner knows most voters — except for the “tea party” legions, of course — weren’t quite so focused in their demands. The new speaker and his advisers have distilled their agenda to a much shorter list of priorities: smaller government, less spending and business-friendly policies to promote the creation of private sector jobs.
“The American people have humbled us,” Boehner said in his brief and low-key speech after his election as speaker Wednesday. “What they want is a government that is honest, accountable and responsive to their needs; a government that respects individual liberty, honors our heritage, and bows before the public it serves.”
Most Democrats could have spoken those words too. OK, “individual liberty” and “heritage” were codeword nods to the tea party right, but they were a long way from the red meat of most political rhetoric over the past year.
One of Boehner’s top advisors, David Winston, was more direct.
“The mandate is to deal with jobs,” he told me. “That’s the message that helped win the majority: Boehner constantly asking the question, ‘Where are the jobs?’ Our biggest challenge now is sustaining that focus.”
Remaining focused means one of Boehner’s first challenges is his own Republican caucus. Keeping his 242 members (including 75 freshmen elected with tea party backing) focused on job creation will require putting aside the more general Obama-bashing some Republican voters yearn to see.
Even when the House takes symbolic anti-Obama actions — as it will do almost immediately with a vote to repeal the entire Obama health care law — the moves will be portrayed as being in the service of jobs.
The repeal will almost certainly die in the Senate, but Boehner will use the House measure to raise his favorite charge against any Democratic expansion of government: that it’s “job killing.” The two-page bill is even titled, formally, “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”
Likewise, as Republicans press their cases for spending cuts and less regulation, their constant argument will be that a smaller federal government is the best way to help the flagging economy create new jobs.
But on both issues — health care and spending — Boehner’s GOP is still in danger of outrunning its real mandate.
Despite the party’s electoral victory, polls suggest many of the swing voters who put the GOP over the top didn’t sign up for the whole program. A Bloomberg poll last month found even after November, the Republican Party is still less popular than Obama or the Democrats.
Most Republican voters want to repeal the health care law, but polls show the public as a whole evenly divided; about half of Americans want to keep or expand the Obama plan.
And while most voters favor federal spending cuts in general, they balk as soon as specific reductions are proposed. A Bloomberg poll last month found majorities opposed to freezing federal spending on education or cutting subsidies for farmers, to cite two examples that should be politically palatable. And about 82 percent of those polled opposed reducing Medicare benefits.
On that count, Boehner may already have boxed himself into something of a corner: He has promised to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year but has exempted military and homeland security programs from the ax. Keeping that promise could require cuts of 20 percent or more from popular programs in education, transportation and other areas.
His biggest test will come in March, when the federal government is expected to bump up against the debt ceiling Congress has approved, meaning before any more can be borrowed, legislators must vote to authorize a higher limit — an idea tea party members loathe. Boehner has already warned his more militant members: “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults.” His goal will be to use the debt ceiling to force Obama to cut spending without precipitating a federal government shutdown (a gambit that backfired on Gingrich in 1995) or, worse, a default that would be disastrous for financial markets.
Boehner triumphed in November with the wind at his back: a sagging economy, dispirited opponents, an electorate that was ready to blame Democrats for all the failings of their two years in power. To succeed a second time in 2012, he’ll need all the skill and discipline he can muster — and a dose of modesty too.
He’s a man of little, if any, charisma. But as Democrats should have learned last fall, they underestimate him at their peril.
• Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.