POLITICS MAY 21, 2007
THE MORNING AFTER President Bush vetoed the Democrats’ Iraq supplemental bill, House Minority Leader John Boehner was in a House press conference room, working himself into a fine lather. With his pinstriped suit, sherbet-orange tie, and deep tan, Boehner looked less like a congressman than a Miami kingpin’s flamboyant defense lawyer—and he mimicked one in manner, peering down the mics at the journalists clustered before him with unconcealed hostility. But after each sentence bashing Democrats came a strange punctuation: The corners of Boehner’s lips would stretch up for an instant into a Mad Hatter smile and then reset to a resolute frown a moment later. “Mr. Boehner, Mr. Boehner, do you—I know you don’t want to get into specifics,” one reporter stuttered. “But do you personally support the concept of having consequences if the Iraqis fail to make political progress?” “I am not going to negotiate here in the press gallery,” Boehner harrumphed. Wacky little smile. Resolute frown. “The last time I looked around this room, there aren’t any votes here.” Smile. Frown.
Boehner’s smile reminded me of the grin he debuted about a month after he took over as House majority leader for Tom DeLay in 2006. The election polls were looking awful, and the Samarra mosque bombing was drawing attention to difficulties in Iraq. “I was letting all of this stress get to me,” he recalls. “So, one day, in about the middle of March, I got up and told myself, ‘Today, no matter what happens, I’m going to smile all day long.’” Smiling—even if you’re faking it—releases endorphins, the brain’s happy chemicals. The trick seems to have worked. “I’ve never had a bad day since!” Boehner chortles.
Seven months after Boehner learned to conquer his self-defeating behaviors and achieve a positive lifestyle, Republicans suffered a devastating midterm defeat. Boehner—whose affable manner evokes less the battlegrizzled captain than the life coach—was tasked with keeping the demoralized troops in line. Republicans accustomed to a sterner sort of leader were skeptical. “There is discussion about whether or not he’d be aggressive,” fretted Republican Representative Patrick McHenry in January.
But, three months later, Republicans are marching in line under Boehner’s command. They also seem to have discovered the best rebound boyfriend a girl could have. “He’s a great listener,” gushes Republican Conference Chair Adam Putnam. No one ever said that about Tom DeLay.
IN THE WAKE of last November’s election rout, Republicans wept on the House floor; one couldn’t get out of bed for the shock. In this apocalyptic environment, many Republicans developed an attitude of every survivor for himself. “What we first heard when we’d lost the majority was, ‘These guys are all free agents now,’” says a House Republican aide. “There’s no reason to keep the majority boat afloat!”
As Congress began in January, Republicans fled their leadership in huge numbers: Eighty-two joined the Democrats on the minimum-wage increase, 68 flipped off the administration on the 9/11 Commission bill, 36 voted to repeal big-oil tax breaks. Iraq looked like it could prove to be the party’s final breakdown. The Republicans’ own whip count showed around 60 members were ready to sign onto the Democratic nonbinding resolution condemning Bush’s surge.
But, as the debate neared, Boehner clicked into full pep-rally mode. His team distributed message points to everybody, “from the members on down to the receptionist answering phones,” recounts a Republican aide. It printed dozens of props—poster-boards, photos, blow-up graphs—and handed them out to the troops to inspire their speeches. And Boehner carefully orchestrated the debate’s flow, closing it with Texan Sam Johnson, who spent seven years as a POW in Hanoi. “Little did I know, back in my rat-infested, three-by-eight dark and filthy cell, that, thirty-four years after my departure from Hell on Earth ... I would be on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives ... urging Congress to support our troops,” Johnson declared on the debate’s last day, gesturing with his withered arm. Even the Democrats in the chamber were moved to join Republicans for a standing ovation.
Watching the orators draw a Manichean contrast between themselves and their surrender-happy opponents, waffling Republicans began to feel their GOP pride surging. “There are some three dozen members whose final vote was affected by nothing more than what was happening on the floor, that we were winning the p.r. war,” says the aide. In the end, only 17 Republicans went with Democrats in voting for the nonbinding resolution. As Republican Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor puts it, “Boehner pumped us up!”
From then on, Boehner made pumping them up his explicit strategy. When a Republican sticks it to a Democrat on the floor, the leadership team sends the caucus a group pride e-mail. Boehner has also pushed motions to recommit—a tactic where the minority stalls a bill that could otherwise pass. The goal, as Boehner explains it, is to build a sense of triumph. “Having a few wins makes members feel better,” he says.
Boehner’s colleagues describe him as the coach who mixes that hoo-ah, football-field spirit with self-esteem-building: You are important! Some Republicans rave about his daily leadership meetings, designed so nobody goes to bed angry. Others contend Boehner embodies the famous Newtism—“Listen, learn, help, lead”—more fully than Newt did. “Newt talked about that a lot, but it was always my management style,” Boehner agrees. Asked to give a recent moment when he listened to a member, Boehner laughs. “Oh, wow. I’m awful at ever remembering these anecdotes. How many conversations do I have a day? Several hundred, at a minimum.”
In fact, Boehner’s success may consist less of actually listening and more of pretending to listen while herding Republicans where he thinks they should go. Some Republicans keen to break with the party on the war have found themselves swept into the pack by forces they don’t even quite understand. “I think there’s certainly a lot of members who want to continue to vote and voice their opposition,” says another Republican aide. “But they don’t have the ability at this point to vote their conscience.”
THOSE WHO saw him as a softie after the election had probably forgotten the ambitious Boehner of the ’90s. He cut his teeth in the Gang of Seven, a group of confrontationhungry freshmen (including Rick Santorum) who raged against the House bank scandal. Then he was appointed Republican Conference Chair, but, among the bigger personalities jostling for control, nobody listened to the personable Boehner. By 1998, he had been pushed out of the leadership altogether.
Now, Boehner’s moment has come—not at the pinnacle of Republican power, but at its nadir. “When you’re comfortable with yourself, you can go through the worst you have to do,” Boehner tells me, summing up his philosophy. It’s the kind of vaguely New Age self-help line an old-fashioned conservative would have snorted at. But, after their election meltdown, many Republicans seem willing to trade their new opportunity to break with leadership and voice individualism for Boehner’s team spirit and warm embrace.
This article was published in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.