The Talking Cure

House Minority Leader John Boehner’s plan for GOP renewal.

House Minority Leader John Boehner

Rep. John Boehner has a message for his GOP colleagues in the House: “We are no longer legislators.” That might seem like an odd thing for the Republican leader to say, but given the size of the Democratic majority, House rules that give the majority near-total control, and the desire of the House Democrats to exercise that control, Boehner’s options for legislating are rather limited. At one point in his leisurely lunch with reporters—something he now has more time for—he was asked about the schedule for energy reform legislation in the House. “I have no idea,” Boehner responded. “I’m not in the majority.”

Boehner has told his colleagues that instead of legislating, they need to be communicating. They need to show people how conservative ideas relate to the way Americans live their lives. Communicating is a very big issue in Republican circles these days—and not just because Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a lackluster response to Barack Obama Tuesday night. The GOP doesn’t just lack a leader who can match the president. It lacks a leader, period.

Republican governors are split among themselves over issues like the recent stimulus bill, and the governors aren’t too impressed with their Washington colleagues. “I don’t even know the congressional leadership,” Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah told editors and reporters at the Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans. “I have not met them. I don’t listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential—completely.” (Boehner brushed off the criticism at the lunch, though he regularly asserted that he was at the mercy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which seemed to support Huntsman’s point.)

And while Republicans search for a sharp and clear voice, they are also looking for something to say. Boehner’s plan is to pitch the party as offering “better solutions,” which is a nice sentiment and politically necessary to rebut the charge from Democrats who are trying to define the GOP as the party of “no.” But in reality—the reality that Boehner describes—the solutions are not likely to get a hearing on their own.

Not so, say some Hill Republicans. Last summer during the debate over rising gas prices, Boehner out-maneuvered Nancy Pelosi by promoting offshore drilling. It was a good moment for the minority, but in that case, Boehner was responding to Democratic energy legislation. Both opposition and ideas are required, which is merely another way of restating the old cliché, which is that you can’t beat something with nothing. Also, what’s changed since last summer is that Republicans are now up against an opposition with a popular president who has the bully pulpit and showed in his congressional address that he knows how to use it.

So Boehner is preaching new ideas, but he’s not letting go of the role as loyal opposition. Referring to the recently passed stimulus bill, he predicted that the GOP will not just move on now that the legislation has passed. “We will have an opportunity to talk about this probably every week for the next 18 months. As this money begins to roll out, some of it is not going to meet the straight face test. It is just not going to happen, and trust me, you will know about it.” (As a sign of the dissonant voices in the party, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said the exact opposite thing Tuesday night when asked about the bill by Fox’s Sean Hannity. “Well, Sean, if you’re talking about the stimulus plan that was passed, I’m trying to put the debate behind us. We are where we are,” said Cantor.)

Boehner was not only playing off of Obama’s policies, he’s using the president’s language. “With few exceptions, it is a speech I could have given,” he said of Obama’s address. “Probably not as well. It was a very conservative speech … if you want to get into ideology. There were very few parts of this that I disagreed with.” This is a hook by which Boehner hopes to entrap Democrats. What Boehner is lauding in Obama is his rhetoric about the strict limits of federal spending. By doing so, Boehner hopes to drive a wedge between the president and his congressional wing. Obama may be thrifty, but looking at Hill Democrats, says Boehner, “From everything I’ve seen, it looks like the era of big government spending is back. … My question to my Democratic friends is how are you going to pay for it?”

He has a point. Democrats are considering a $410 billion omnibus spending bill this week that looks like it will be produced in the old sloppy fashion and not meet the rigorous tests that Obama laid out in his address to Congress. Boehner suggested Obama veto the bill, which isn’t going to happen. He’s also suggested that Congress make good on the new belt-tightening spirit by simply funding the programs at the previous year’s levels. Those ideas aren’t likely to get very far because, as Boehner points out, Republicans don’t control the mechanisms of power, and they’re not such fabulous ideas that they immediately capture the imagination. To get a hearing, Republicans are still going to have to use the word no.