Boehner’s Hands-Off Style Has Risks

Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:31pm

Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) has said countless times that he will lead House Republicans back to the majority by making it the party of better ideas.

But Boehner seems content to let a thousand ideas and ideologies bloom within the Conference without attempting to enforce a unified voice among his membership.

At a time when Democrats are vulnerable, several GOP Members and aides caution that Boehner’s hands-off style makes it hard for the party to present a unified front to fight the majority and in some cases may hurt the party at the ballot box.

Several members of the Conference said on background that Boehner tends to wait until he knows a tactic is going to work before signing on rather than raising a banner for the Conference to follow.

At Thursday’s “House Call— rally — initiated by controversial rank-and-filer Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — Boehner stood behind conservative leaders, clapping politely as the crowd of protesters chanted, “We want Michele,— and waved signs scrawled with anti-health-care-reform slogans.

He eventually addressed the crowd, but only after half a dozen other speakers, including several of his rank-and-file Members, had taken the podium.

According to one Member, the Republican Study Committee, which organized the event, wasn’t notified Boehner would speak at the Thursday rally until the day before it occurred. Leadership “was clearly not eager to go all in. … Leadership didn’t think we could pull it off,— the GOP Member said.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who said he helped hatch the protest with Bachmann, said the idea happened “organically— and that the RSC and the House Republican Conference helped with the logistical details.

“We are committed to doing anything possible to grow the core of fighting conservatives in this Conference,— he said.

A GOP leadership aide said Boehner’s limited involvement was by design.

“It’s always a balancing act between supporting great ideas without seeming to steal folks’ thunder,— the aide said.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for RSC Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), said, “Organizing such a large-scale event in just five days would not have been possible without the helping hand from Leader Boehner and his staff.—

Several members of the Conference said Boehner was reluctant to fully engage in the anti-tax tea party movement because of its extreme tactics such as shouting down Members of Congress at town halls or carrying inflammatory signs.

Boehner typically favors more temperate modes of attack on the Democratic Party, the Members said.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said the Republican leader had been involved in the tea parties for months and denied that he was uncomfortable with the movement.

He noted Boehner met with tea party leaders in June and addressed a crowd of 18,000 at a rally in his district over Labor Day weekend.

Steel said the tea party event on Thursday was an example of the tactics the Republican leader has heartily endorsed.

“Throughout the year, Boehner has encouraged Members to engage in what he calls ‘entrepreneurial insurgency,’ using innovative strategies and tactics to communicate our better solutions to the American people,— Steel said. “The rally yesterday was a great example, and Boehner thanked Reps. Bachmann, King and Price for taking the initiative and making it happen.—

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), once a frequent Boehner critic, said the leader’s hands-off approach allows the Conference to become stronger as a whole instead of relying on leadership to give it marching orders.

“It’s a good thing because I think Members now feel empowered that they don’t need to wait for permission to show leadership,— Hensarling said. “The leader is leading by settling goals, not necessarily methodology.—

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who ran against Boehner for Minority Leader last year, said it is wiser to encourage Members who want to try creative ways to push the Republican message rather than to stifle them and risk killing the morale in a party already in the deep minority.

“If you have a leadership that is constantly creating tension that won’t allow those conservative leaders to do their thing, then you don’t have that successful approach.—

However, a third Member cautioned that approach would not help Republicans regain the majority in the long term.

“It’s kind of every man for himself,— the Member said. “That’s what entrepreneurial insurgency gets you.—

Criticism of Boehner’s reluctance to take the lead on issues inside the Capitol is not new. For example, last year conservatives frequently criticized Boehner and his previous leadership team for failing to demand a Conference-wide moratorium on earmarks.

Republicans on and off the Hill have privately grumbled about Boehner’s unwillingness to rein in conservatives, most recently standing by while several senior Republicans endorsed third-party candidate Doug Hoffman in the race for the Congressional seat in New York’s 23rd district.

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), whom Boehner brought into the leadership circle last year, refused to endorse Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava — the only member of elected leadership to demur.

“All of leadership was locked in, and [Pence] was not locked in,— a fourth Member said. Scozzafava ultimately withdrew and the more conservative Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens, who was sworn in Friday, the first Democrat to hold that seat in more than a century.

One Member said Boehner’s handling of Pence is unsurprising because, when given the choice between confrontation or avoiding a dispute, Boehner would always choose the latter.

But Boehner’s hands-off style has also earned him many allies inside the conference, two of whom told Roll Call that Boehner knew Pence would go his own way occasionally when he endorsed the Indiana Republican for the Conference position.

“There are some people in this Conference that want to be No. 1 man in the rowboat rather than number whatever in the steamship,— one Member said.

Asked whether Boehner spoke to Pence about his decision, Steel declined to comment on private Member-to-Member conversations.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who gave Hoffman $5,000 the day before Scozzafava suspended her campaign, said he did not notify Boehner and dismissed the idea that it was necessary or expected.

“In the minority, Members are unafraid to [exercise] entrepreneurial insurgency,— Issa said. “No one said, ‘Don’t do what you think is right.’—

The New York race is clearly a sore spot for the party, and a source at the National Republican Congressional Committee said a thorough after-action review would be conducted.

But a source close to Boehner said the leader is clearly aware of the need to advance an agenda that can win elections.

“Boehner is deadly serious about this,— the source said. “He knows we need to stop losing these damned things.—