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Dems Unlikely to Target Boehner in 2014 Messaging

Dems Unlikely to Target Boehner in 2014 Messaging

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 24, 2013

It's no secret that Democrats consider John Boehner an ineffective speaker of the House. He is unable to control his restive brood, as evidenced most recently by last week's surprise implosion of the Farm Bill on the House floor. On budget issues, Boehner has been hamstrung in his negotiations with the White House by members with Tea Party leanings. And he has all but acknowledged being forced to waste precious legislative time catering to social conservatives who want to cast symbolic votes on everything from abortion to Obamacare.

If Boehner were a woman, his predecessor Nancy Pelosi has said, he would be considered “the weakest speaker in history.”

So as the two political parties gear up for the 2014 midterms, it would seem natural in today’s polarized environment that Democrats are eager to make Boehner a household word -- and not in a good way. But interviews with several liberal strategists suggest that Democrats aren’t planning to demonize Boehner -- or even to campaign against him at all.

Republicans spent millions of dollars doing just that with Pelosi through virtually every medium at their disposal in the 2010 elections. Midterms typically serve as a referendum on the president, but that one was also a check on then-Speaker Pelosi, a top Obama cheerleader who shepherded his signature achievement, health care reform, through the House. For Republicans, she was a symbol of what was wrong in Washington. She proved to be a liability for some of her members in congressional races, and voters gave the GOP control of the House.

But for several reasons, Boehner won’t be same sort of albatross for Republicans. And Democrats don’t want him to be.

For starters, many Democrats like Boehner personally. He is seen as a moderate in his conference and has on recent occasions pushed through bills a majority of his members opposed and most Democrats supported -- the tax-raising fiscal cliff deal, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the Violence Against Women Act, for examples. Many believe Boehner earnestly wants to negotiate and reach compromises, but his conference won’t let him. Boehner is caught in the chaos of his own House.

“I think at end of the day, he’s a guy who wants to get stuff done, and they don’t see Boehner as Tea Party, right wing,” said one Democratic strategist. “He’s operating inside of a caucus that doesn’t want anyone to tell them what to do.”

Pelosi is better known than Boehner because she was the first female speaker and she became the public face of Democrats before Obama did. Boehner doesn’t have a public brand comparable to many previous party leaders. The liberal Tip O’Neill suffered personal attacks from the opposition that compared the hefty Bostonian to the fat, out of control deficit. Minority Leader Tom Delay “was seen as a super conservative, almost slimy Texas Republican; Pelosi as a latte liberal. . . . Both stereotypes were effective for the opposing party,” says Kyle Kondik, who studies congressional races at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Democrats believe they can have more success by going after Boehner’s members. Earlier this month, for example, Arizona Rep. Trent Franks told members of the House Judiciary Committee examining his anti-abortion bill that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy [is] very low.” While not exactly comparable, the comments recalled Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark and Richard Mourdock’s argument that God intends even rape-related pregnancies to occur, statement that helped sink both men’s Senate bids in 2012. Earlier this year, as Republicans were trying to figure out ways to attract Latino voters, Alaska Rep. Don Young referred to immigrant laborers at “wetbacks.”

Democratic strategists say success for them will come in highlighting a host of characters in the GOP to portray a party in disarray. “The party is not being led by one person; it’s being led by a right-wing ideology,” the Democratic strategist said.

But Boehner has on occasion tipped his hat. He allowed Franks’ bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy to come to the floor for a vote. The measure passed on party lines, but some moderate Republican lawmakers lamented time spent on a social measure when the GOP is preaching fiscal responsibility.

“I think a lot of vulnerable members are frustrated by the debate that brings up this topic and not talking about jobs and the economy,” said a Republican aide. Franks’ comments took the spotlight from Boehner, who allowed debate on the bill.

“Unfortunately, our members have a problem doing the messaging right on these types of bills, and it puts the candidates and members in a bad spot,” the aide said. “At least we are checking the box off with the folks on the right this year, during summer, when most people aren’t paying attention. When you look at the big picture, [it’s] better to do it now, in an off year, instead of 2014.”

Boehner said the Kermit Gosnell verdict, which found the abortion doctor guilty of snipping the spine of a newborn, warranted congressional action on the issue.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Raul Labrador, a conservative from Idaho and a critic of Boehner, told RCP, explaining how the House can legislate on both fiscal and social issues.

Another reason Boehner isn’t a GOP liability is perhaps more practical: Pollsters and strategists on both sides of the aisle admit that he doesn’t trigger the same visceral reaction from the public as do figures like Pelosi.

“We’re not going to make 2014 a referendum on John Boehner because nobody knows who he is,” New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, told RCP.

It would also be expensive to make him a household name. “It would be a mistake to go after Boehner,” said the Democratic strategist. “Even if he was a Newt [Gingrich]-like character or someone just far to the right with extreme views, you need to spend money to make him a liability.” Instead, they’re relying on the controversial actions and statement of his members and the media attention they earn in the 24-hour news cycle.

As for the Republicans, they will continue to hammer Pelosi. “She is still in leadership and a good symbol for what Americans don’t want to go back to,” said the Republican aide. “They don’t want the president to have unfettered control over government because they saw what they got” in the first two years of his presidency.

But Boehner doesn’t carry that same kind of weight, especially among independent voters who may like the idea of divided government. And if Democrats are going to be motivated to dislike some in the opposing party, it’s more likely to be someone like Akin or Mourdock or Franks -- but not Boehner, says Kondik.

Pelosi played a key role in the passage of Obamacare, and when it became unpopular in a lot of congressional districts, she took hits along with her members who voted for it. House Republicans under Boehner’s leadership haven’t passed major pieces of legislation that trigger that same kind of emotional response.

The next big test for Boehner comes next month, with immigration reform. The Senate will likely pass a bill this week, but Boehner has said he won’t take up the measure -- and won’t allow any legislation to come to the floor without a majority of his conference behind it. (Boehner received the majority of Republican support for the Farm Bill, but it still didn’t pass. He blamed Democrats on failing to deliver the votes they promised, even though many were opposed to cuts the legislation made to food stamp programs.)

Congressional Democrats have criticized him for his immigration stance, creating the Twitter hashtag #BoehnerStyle, but that was meant to hit inside the Beltway. Boehner has been supportive of immigration reform and Democrats believe he wants to get a bill passed, but they will also be watching to see how he handles the issue this summer. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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