Commentary: Mr. Speaker-in-waiting
The House Minority Leader sits in his spacious Capitol Hill office contemplating an upgrade to larger digs should his party live up to expectations and win a majority of congressional seats in the midterm elections this November.
Ohio Rep. John Boehner could very well become third in line to the presidency. But when I ask him what his late parents might think of him, given the humble circumstances in which he says he was born, he displays an emotion rarely seen in a politician not confessing to scandal: he begins to tear up and reaches for a box of tissues.
"'Why me?' I ask God," he says, "I'm just a regular guy with a big job."
While resisting presumption ("we still have a long way to go") and with a sign on his desk that reads, "It CAN be done," Boehner still discusses things he believes are possible should Republicans regain majority status.
Asked about the most important lesson he learned from losing the Republican majority of 1994, Boehner replies, "Our team failed to live up to our own principles."
He points to recent votes as proof "we have learned our lesson" -- Republicans stood together and voted unanimously against the stimulus (twice), the Obama budget (twice), health care reform and almost all Republicans voted against Cap and Trade. Boehner suggests that unity will carry over to what he hopes will be a second chance at a GOP majority.
He promises a freeze on any new federal programs and to undo those that aren't working, cost too much, or are outdated. "Congress hasn't done a good quality job of oversight in a long time," Boehner says. "I came here for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government and that has not been what's been happening. We don't need any more programs; we need to undo a lot of programs."
Where to start? Both parties know Social Security and Medicare are in need of drastic reform. What would a Republican majority do with these nearly bankrupt programs?
Having learned from President George W. Bush's attempt to reform these spending monsters, Boehner maintains, "You can't lead with your chin. (Bush) led with a solution to a problem people didn't understand." Instead Boehner wants "an adult conversation" to "lay the problem out. Then you can be able to talk about an array of possible solutions." Only after people get it, he says, can you attempt "what's doable."
Boehner says part of the conversation will remind the public exactly how much their government is spending and in terms they can understand, instead of speaking about trillion-dollar debt.
He puts it this way: "Forty-one cents of every dollar the federal government spends we have to borrow from our kids and grandkids. So I think the test is real simple. You go through every damn program, every line item in the budget and you ask this question: 'Is this spending so important that we're willing to ask our kids and grandkids to pay for it?' If it doesn't meet that test, then why are we doing it?"
Boehner promises Republicans will restore the Hyde Amendment, restricting federal money for abortions.
He also said if angry voters want real change, they must stay engaged with their elected officials after the election. "You can't ignore Washington. If people want to change direction, I have to have them engaged in this fight."
Boehner believes Republicans can circumvent much of the mainstream media that is so often hostile to his party and often opposes GOP objectives. He tells me Republicans now have a "social media advantage" with a "3-2 margin in Facebook pages over the Democrats, even though they have a 49-seat majority; twice as many Twitter followers as the Democrats, yet 90 percent of the tweets come from Republicans. Nine of the top 10 political views on YouTube are from Republicans. Our members now understand you have to communicate with people and keep them involved in the fight."
Cynics have heard promises of reform before from both parties, but with a foundation of new, young members and the possibility of reinforcements after the election, John Boehner increasingly looks like the next speaker of the House. His parents would be proud.
Cal Thomas' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.