Frame Game

Electile Dysfunction

The GOP’s incredible shrinking Boehner.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.

John Boehner

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the election-night landslide that brought him to power, Newt Gingrich asserted a mandate for his Contract with America and a new leadership role for himself. “The Republican Whip in a minority role is a middle linebacker,” he said of his previous job. “The Speaker of the House is a head coach.”

Last night, in the wake of another landslide, incoming Speaker John Boehner sent a very different message: “While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people’s House, we must remember it’s the president who sets the agenda for our government.”

The president? You’ve just been handed 60 House seats by voters disgusted with the president, and you’re deferring to him?

This is the difference between Gingrich and Boehner. Gingrich set the agenda. He put forward a platform, treated the election as a referendum on it, and tried to implement it. He governed. He played quarterback, or at least head coach.

For this, Gingrich paid a steep price. Against his offense, President Clinton played middle linebacker. In 1995 and 1996, Clinton ran against Gingrich’s agenda and beat it.

From this episode, Boehner seems to have learned a political lesson: Don’t play offense. Stay in the role of middle linebacker. Let the president set the agenda. For two years, with an eye on the midterms, Boehner has followed this strategy, refusing to put forward a clear program that President Obama could attack. What’s surprising is that Boehner is sticking with this defensive posture even after winning power. He has been thrust into leadership but doesn’t want it.

On election night 1994, Gingrich told CBS News that the GOP’s victory was a mandate for an agenda. “I would start with our Contract With America, which we put in TV Guide, which is very specific, which 330 House Republican candidates signed,” he said. “The American people tonight seem to be accepting the contract.” Gingrich called on his party to “accept the contract with the American people” and implement the “changes people voted for.”

Gingrich acknowledged Clinton’s authority but cast him as a responder to the new agenda. “At least half of our Contract With America are things that the president should be able to support,” Gingrich argued. He added: “We are bound, to some extent, by the contract. But within that framework, we’d like to work with the president.”

Boehner asserts no such mandate or central role. In his speech last night, he framed the referendum of 2010 in strictly negative terms: “Across the country right now, we’re witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government, and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the American people.”

As to his own agenda, Boehner offered only the vaguest boilerplate: “cutting spending,” “reducing the size of government,” and “giving government back to the people.” Instead of clarifying these terms, he repeatedly promised to “listen” to voters and do their bidding. “The people’s priorities will be our priorities, and the people’s agenda will be our agenda,” he said. “We are humbled by the trust that the American people have placed in us. And we recognize that with this trust comes the responsibility to listen, and listen we will.” He sounded like the wretched gelatinous boyfriend who promises to be whatever you want.

Nor did Boehner proclaim a new relationship between Congress and the public, as Gingrich did. On the contrary, Boehner emphasized the centrality of Obama’s relationship with the public: “We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and commit to making changes that they are demanding. And to the extent that he’s willing to do that, we’re ready to work with him.”

Video: John Boehner leads the GOP takeover of the House

Politically, Boehner’s deference makes sense. Voters are angry. They want the economy fixed, but it’s too messed up to be repaired before the next election. In these circumstances, the worst place to be, from an electoral standpoint, is in power. You want to be the linebacker, not the quarterback. You’re better off with Boehner’s vacuous Pledge to America than the substantial Contract With America.

But politics, too, has its price. Fear of electoral failure can make you impotent in office. You spend the years between elections ducking the risks of leadership. You wedgislate and hedgislate, but you never really legislate. For the sake of your career, you waste it.

That’s what I admire about Gingrich and Obama. Obama may lose more seats in Congress than Clinton did. He may be thrown out after one term. But he’ll have accomplished more than Clinton did, because he focused on doing the job, not keeping it.

The voters have spoken, Mr. Speaker. It’s time to lead. Do it, and take the consequences.

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