To the victor go the spoils, and how the victor reacts in the first fleeting moments of glory can say a lot.
Soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner was clearly basking in the Republican sweep election night. But more interestingly, he wasn’t gloating. Not yet anyway.
As he is known to do, Boehner teared up before the cameras. He focused not simply on the historic walloping his party handed the Democrats; he also took a prime-time moment to marvel about how he, a “tavern owner’s son,” had gotten to this place.
For a few minutes at the podium, Boehner was a man channeling his life story, recounting his days mopping floors and waiting tables, “working every rotten job there was.” And toiling as a small businessman running a plastics company, before he began to earn wealth. “I spent my whole life chasing the American dream,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion.
But there’s another side to John Boehner: the charming man-on-the-make with a knack for making connections in high places. A steel industry lobbyist first interested him in running for an Ohio state legislature seat, and lobbyists have sponsored his career ever since. Boehner’s determined opposition to unions, regulation, taxes and other banes of the industrial and financial elite no doubt made him stand out as a ringer.
So now that he’s about to become the most powerful man in the House of Representatives, what will the tavern owner’s son do? Today’s equivalents of the young John Boehner — the kind of men and women who take six years to earn a college degree because they have to work nights — are facing the fiercest economic downturn in generations. One in 10 Americans is involuntarily out of work. Decimated demand in the economy threatens to create a deflationary spiral. The private sector is hoarding cash because there are no prospects for sales growth — and thus no prospects for more jobs — on the horizon.
So what is Boehner going to do to help Americans who are struggling? Why, he’s trotting out a scaled-down version of the “Contract With America,” renamed the “Pledge to America” in the hope of conjuring bygone Republican fervor.
The lack of substance is another disturbing sign that putting America back to work isn’t Job 1 for Republicans. Shortly before the elections, Republican leader Mitch McConnell stated his (and presumably, his party’s) overarching goal: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Regardless of what GOP militants might believe, that’s not the message that voters were sending Nov. 2. A recent McClatchy-Marist poll reports that 72 percent of registered voters said they wanted Republicans to work with Obama, as opposed to only 22 percent who wanted the party to stand firm even to the point of gridlock.
How about setting the economy upright, tackling rampant unemployment, and restoring confidence that our financial institutions operate lawfully and honestly? How about helping Americans repair their balance sheets so they can borrow and spend responsibly again, which will revive commerce on Main Street and set us all on the road back to prosperity? How about reforming and funding American education so that our children begin achieving again in subjects such as the sciences, technology, engineering and math — the core disciplines necessary for future global competitiveness? How about not cutting taxes on the wealthy until our fiscal deficit is under control? These are all problems Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together on. If he is honest, Boehner will see that he needs to act like the tavern owner’s son he used to be, not the lobbyists’ buddy he is now.
The man Boehner portrayed himself to be on election night was introspective about his success. I think he was sincere, and I’d argue that is a hopeful sign. Boehner’s greatest moments in politics have come not from playing the hard-edged guy but the bi-partisan conciliator. He buckled down with the late Ted Kennedy and crafted the No Child Left Behind Act.
The legislation certainly has its flaws, but it did launch the nation toward holding schools accountable for the failures of public education. It was a game changer for the nation.
So time will tell. Are Boehner’s tears symptomatic of a man still bristling, tender from the struggles of his past? Or are they props in the pseudo-populist pantomime that American politics has become?