Published on TheHill.com on September 14, 2010
There are so many faces of the radical Democratic Party. Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Dean, Hillary Clinton. So many targets for the Republicans. But the GOP is faceless. Palin is a target, but nobody thinks she runs the party. Either Bush will do, but they are increasingly subjects for archaeologists, not politicians. Cheney? Not when he’s in the hospital.
So Obama and his allies have to create a villain, and none fits the bill so well as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). By appearing in the Ohioan’s district and attacking him directly, President Obama is hoping to turn the prospective future Speaker into a modern-day version of Newt Gingrich, who served as such an attractive target for Bill Clinton.
The president is trying to make Boehner the poster-boy for the often corrupt nexus between the big corporations and the Republican establishment. His ties to tobacco (he once passed out the industry’s campaign contributions on the House floor — presumably to save the cost of postage) and his frequent lobbyist-paid trips make him a convenient target. And attacks on big business tap into the allure of economic populism, the last refuge of liberals before they admit that they have to move to the center.
The New York Times contributed its efforts by highlighting a hit piece on the front page of its edition last Sunday that focused on Boehner’s corporate travel, lobbyist donations, meetings with lobbyist friends and a catalog of his former staffers who became lobbyists. The implication of the article was that if the Republicans take over the House, lobbyists for the major corporations will rule.
The attempt to highlight Boehner underscores the almost total lack of a Democratic message in the fall elections. Some try to blame Bush. Others are running as far from Obama as they can. Some seize on the scantiest evidence to justify their negative ads.
In some districts, a Republican’s signature on the no-new-tax pledge of Americans for Tax Reform will trigger an ad saying that the GOP candidate wants to “ship jobs overseas.” How? The Democrats interpret the pledge to mean that the Republican will not vote to close corporate loopholes that let companies deduct the cost of relocating offshore.
Other Democrats jump all over candidates who have endorsed Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” for reforming entitlements, saying that they want to “privatize Social Security.” Presumably, they come to that conclusion because Ryan wants to let people under 55 invest one-third of their Social Security taxes in investments of their choice.
One has to be pretty hard-up to reach for these negatives; hence the efforts of Obama et al to create a target in Boehner. It is too tall a task, and the time is too short, to take an unknown politician like Boehner and sell the idea that he is so evil that one should vote Democrat. But, in the longer term, the Democratic strategy poses a key challenge to the Republican Party.
Boehner has been too close for too long to corporate lobbyists. While Republican candidates have not minded living off the campaign donations his ties can generate, they squirm in embarrassment when the relationships are exposed.
For his part, Boehner needs to watch his step. The incoming class of congressmen who will vote on his Speakership will likely have 80 to 100 new faces, some replacements for retiring Republicans and others victorious insurgents. These new congressmen, more than a third of the total GOP House caucus, will have been elected pledging reform and purity. It may be hard for them to embrace Boehner, especially if the Democrats have made him radioactive. Boehner would be well-advised to take bold preemptive steps to reform Congress.
In a previous column, we recommended establishing a special prosecutor for Congress — appointed by the chief justice and equipped with subpoena power, the ability to convene grand juries and bring indictments — and appropriate investigative staff. A ban on earmarking, on spousal service on corporate boards and on travel paid for by corporations or foundations should also be included. And … get rid of Nancy Pelosi’s plane!
All this may not even be enough to appease the Tea Party types who will make up an ever-larger share of the Republican congressional delegation. To paraphrase the film title: There may be blood.