Craig Frucht | Axes to Grind
Speaker of the Clubhouse
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 01:02
Speaker of the House John Boehner is a tough guy to figure out. He’s known as a “hard-core conservative,” yet he nearly ignited an open Tea Party revolt in the House last month. He has a reputation as a pragmatist, yet he presided over the least productive Congress in history in 2011 and 2012.
Boehner isn’t a deft negotiator, a charismatic leader, or close to being a beloved figure among his fellow Republicans. But until a 2016 presidential contender takes the reins that were held by Mitt Romney, Boehner remains the most visible face of the badly fragmented Republican Party.
When the party does eventually coalesce around a stable identity, a more intriguing figure will supplant Boehner’s primacy. It could be Chris Christie, the true pragmatist, Marco Rubio, the young establishment figure thirsty for the national spotlight, or Rand Paul, probably the most powerful Tea Party politician in the country.
For now, however, it’s Boehner who will be in the news every day offering a counterpoint to President Obama’s proposals and whose agenda-setting power will dictate how far House Republicans are willing to take their brinkmanship.
This means that while the party desperately tries to reinvigorate its brand and expand its shrinking base, a man dripping with old-school, “Mad Men”-style politics will be its main ambassador. A gruff, straight, white, chain-smoking male who, before he became Speaker, was perhaps best known for handing out campaign checks from cigarette lobbyists on the floor of the House. If I didn’t know Boehner was a real person, I’d think I was describing a character from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
And based on the way Boehner described himself, I have to wonder if he’d even take issue with that characterization. In an interview with Bob Woodward last year, this is how Boehner summed up the disparate personalities of himself and the president:
“[A]ll you need to know about the differences between the president and myself is that I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, drinking merlot, and there is the president of the United States drinking iced tea and chomping Nicorette.”
I don’t like to get too bogged down in out-of-context sound bites, but this is a rare case where a remark merits somewhat more attention than it received (it received none). What distinction, exactly, was Boehner trying to draw here? That he enjoys the tastes of a self-made man’s man, whereas Obama is
what? More uptight? More health-conscious? Less masculine?
Maybe I’m reading too much into what is mostly a case of harmless ribbing at the president’s expense, except we saw so much of this attitude after Obama was re-elected in November. Republican politicians and pundits from Romney to Ann Coulter framed his victory as a defeat for the “makers” at the hands of the “takers.” According to this narrative, the stereotypical American success story — a young whippersnapper who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and opens a hardware store or a feed shop — suffered a defeat at the hands of his inferiors.
Boehner’s comment may well have been innocuous. That isn’t the point. What matters is that the Republican brand has become bathed in more hyper-masculine rhetoric than a lot of Americans can stomach. It cloaks the party’s rhetoric on all manner of social and economic issues, from gun control to gay marriage to tax reform.
It’s not a brand that sells, as evidenced by Romney’s inability to win over more than 44 percent of women and 22 percent of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. But Boehner, the party’s present de facto leader, is an impediment to Republicans as they look for a new direction.
Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.