• The Wall Street Journal
    • NOVEMBER 5, 2010

    The Boehner Evolution

    House Republicans and the challenge of divided government.

      • John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich, which suits the current public mood. Americans have had their fill of triumphalism and revolution in a House Speaker. But Barack Obama is also no Bill Clinton, a President with a gift for tactical politics and compromise. And therein lies the drama of the next two years as we return to divided government. We’re probably destined more for gridlock than accomplishment, which after the last two years is an accomplishment itself.
    In his press conference yesterday, Mr. Obama did not sound like someone ideologically chastened by the rout of his fellow Democrats. He said he felt “bad” for so many careers cut short, and that he was thinking about his own role in the defeat. But he rejected the thought that his own policies were to blame, save for the fact that they haven’t—yet—produced an economic recovery robust enough to make everything else he did popular. His concessions to defeat, in short, were limited to a reflective personal tone, not substance.

    The message we take away is that Mr. Obama will continue to press his “transformative” agenda in any way possible. Even on cap and trade—an issue that West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin literally shot in a TV ad to save his campaign—Mr. Obama said yesterday he would seek other means to accomplish the same goal of taxing carbon. We can only imagine what soon-to-be-jobless Democrats in the Coal Belt and Midwest thought of that one.

    Which brings us to Mr. Boehner, who saw the Gingrich train wreck of 1995 up close as part of the leadership. He knows Republicans can’t govern from the House, so his challenge will be picking the issues on which he might be able to succeed, or at least frame the agenda for the election of 2012.

    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, center, with Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, left, and House Republican leader John Boehner after the Republican sweep in the midterm elections.


    This means focusing above all on policies for faster economic growth and job creation. In one sense, this is easier than it sounds: First, stop doing more harm. Merely putting an end to any new taxes or regulation will contribute to business confidence, removing the fear of new higher costs.

    The immediate priority is extending the 2001 and 2003 tax rates, which expire on January 1. Democrats are already angling for some classic insider fudge, such as extending lower rates for the middle class permanently but only for a year for upper incomes and dividends. Or perhaps raising rates only on those who make $1 million or more.

    The best growth policy and politics is to extend all of the lower rates permanently. Temporary tax cuts don’t provide the same assurance for business investment or hiring, and the top marginal rates on income and capital investment are the ones that most affect economic growth.

    Tim Phillips, President of Americans for Prosperity, explains the Republican wave.

    Conceding the class war argument after picking up 60 or more House seats would also be a terrible signal of political weakness. If Republicans hold firm on tax cuts for everybody, they can force Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats facing re-election in 2012 to oppose an extension for the middle class simply to punish the rich. We think they will fold.

    House Republicans will also find political running room to cut spending. President Obama will want to improve his own dreadful fiscal record going into 2012, and Mr. Boehner can use that leverage to reduce domestic discretionary spending to 2008 levels, or lower.

    Here is where we’ll find out how much Republicans in both the House and Senate have learned from their own failures of the last decade. The culture of spending runs deep in both parties, especially among the lifers on the Appropriations Committee. Rather than reappoint one of the spending cardinals, Mr. Boehner can send a message to the tea party by appointing a younger spending hawk as Chairman.

    The same goes for ending earmarks, which is as much about political symbolism as it is saving money. If Republicans want the public to support their budget-cutting, they are going to have to show they can also discipline themselves. Presumptive Majority Leader Eric Cantor spoke yesterday about extending a moratorium on earmarks, and Mr. Boehner can underscore that message by naming an earmark critic like Arizona’s Jeff Flake to the spending panel.

    Republicans can also help the economy by shining the light of hearings on costly new rules and mandates. A friend of ours suggests that the GOP devote each week to highlighting one way that government is inhibiting investment and hiring—say, the slow-roll on Gulf drilling permits, or obstacles to exploring the Marcellus Shale gas deposits, or the next burdensome ObamaCare rule, or the FCC’s re-regulation of the telecom industry.

    Mr. Boehner said yesterday he has a mandate to repeal ObamaCare, and we agree the House should vote to do so. Once that dies in the Senate or on Mr. Obama’s desk, however, Republicans will have to pursue a strategy of attacking that destructive bill one part at a time. This, too, will take careful hearings and public education.


    Which brings us to the tea party and political patience. One lesson of the big GOP victory is that voters are again open to a message of limited government, but they want messengers with the savvy and smarts to implement it. Voters swept dozens of newcomers to power on Tuesday, but they also rejected prominent tea party candidates who didn’t seem up to the task. This cost at least two seats in the Senate, and it ought to chasten tea partiers who want House Republicans to perform immediate miracles. It should also inform the 2012 GOP Presidential nominating debate.

    By all means, tea partiers should hold Republicans to their promises, while recognizing that Harry Reid still has a Senate majority and Mr. Obama still has his veto pen. Republicans did not win a governing majority on Tuesday. They were given a chance to build one in 2012, if they can show they deserve it over the next two years.


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