Spirits were high when a posse of John Boehner’s friends traveled from Ohio to the nation’s capital to celebrate the longtime Republican congressman’s elevation to Speaker of the House in January 2011.
Here’s what one of them, Steve Schramm, told NPR at the time, between bites of grilled cheese sandwiches being served in an ornate Capitol Hill reception room and jokes about how long it would take Boehner to tear up at his swearing in: “John is a very good diplomat in a world of politicians. He’s likeable, but has conviction.”
That boded well for their guy, Schramm figured, even as a Tea Party-fueled debate over whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling loomed.
But that celebratory mood quickly faded, and since that first debt ceiling mess, Boehner’s speakership has been buffeted by constant crisis.
Today he’s the man in the middle of what has the makings of one of the most dramatic and damaging failures of Congress in the nation’s history, embittered by past failed negotiations with Obama, and boxed in by the Tea Party wing of his party.
Back home, those who cheered him on his big day are as divided as the rest of their party on how Boehner has handled the hand he’s been dealt as speaker.
Schramm says he likes how Boehner has stiffened his spine in his dealings with the White House and Senate Democrats. Others, including Bill Langdon, who owned a pub in Boehner’s hometown of West Chester where supporters partied when Democrat Nancy Pelosi passed the speaker’s gavel to their congressman, are disillusioned.
“I don’t like the shutdown,” says Langdon, who says Boehner erred in allowing the budget debate to be linked to efforts to undo the health care overhaul.
“He’s boxed himself in a corner now,” Langdon, now retired, says. “He’s swum out to sea and he’s got nowhere to go.”
Toughened Up Over Time
Schramm has a different take. He likes where Boehner’s path has taken him, and just wishes he’d gotten tougher sooner.
“We all had the highest of hopes then — Barack Obama had promised to work with the other side, and John was the right guy to provide that connection,” says Schramm, a southwest Ohio businessman who met Boehner on a golf course more than a half dozen years ago.
“But what the president promised is not how it played out, and at home, we all hoped that John would stiffen up sooner,” he said. “As a local guy, I’m happy he’s finally digging his heels in and taking a stand on the government’s role in my life.”
Schramm said Boehner’s secret debt ceiling negotiations with the president in 2011 damaged him with the party. And he theorizes that it was fallout from that experience, more so than his demoralizing ouster from party leadership during Newt Gingrich’s reign as speaker in the 1990s, that’s been driving him in the current crisis.
“After that, he said, ‘the hell with it,'” Schramm said, referring to Boehner’s debt ceiling negotiations with Obama two years ago. “John’s not going to fight until you hit him first; then he’s going to fight.”
Tom O’Brien, a Cincinnati investment advisor who also traveled to Washington for Boehner’s party, says he felt some early frustration with the speaker’s early performance. But he notes that the current battle — propelled by the new class of conservatives in Congress — has enhanced Boehner’s standing with conservatives back home.
The speaker, he says, has responded to pressure applied from his home district, and “from the liberty groups, and from those of us who believe in limited government and fiscal responsibility and free markets — whether it’s an epiphany, or just a slow walk to taking that firm stand. It’s overdue, and with my full support.
“I would suggest that the speaker’s support is as high as it’s ever been,” said O’Brien, who also lives in Boehner’s hometown and has lived in his congressional district for more than three decades. “This is clearly no fun because it creates hardships on many folks, but it’s absolutely necessary.”
The current budget pain, including the government shutdown, O’Brien says, are necessary “speed bumps.”
A Failure to Communicate
Langdon, however, argues that Boehner has not picked the right fights — or picked the right fights at the wrong time.
“He should have let the health care bill go,” Langdon says, particularly with Democrats in control of the Senate and with voters having just given President Obama a second term and an implicit endorsement of his health care overhaul.
“If Obamacare is as bad as we think it is, let it go ahead and let the people feel the pain of it, and then things will change,” he said. “If it’s not as bad as I think it is, then good.”
Langdon says he’s also been disappointed in how Boehner has sold the GOP agenda to the American people.
“I just don’t think he does a good job explaining what Republicans are doing,” says Langdon. “No matter what you thought of her, when Nancy Pelosi was speaker, she was on the TV every day — she was out there.”
“You rarely see Speaker Boehner out there explaining his position,” he said.
Boehner made a brief appearance Tuesday afternoon during which he said “there’s going to be negotiation” but offered no further detail.
When Langdon still owned the Grand Ole Pub, it was an unofficial meeting place of sorts for Republicans. He remembers Boehner staffers holding monthly meetings there with local Tea Party groups.
“I could tell from their body language they weren’t agreeing,” he said. “The speaker is not a Tea Party guy, but he has to work with them and they’ve pushed him.”
“They want to have the battle now,” Langdon said.