John Boehner: 2014 bogeyman?

November 13, 2013

(T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Being one of the four top-ranking congressional leaders is like being part of an unpopularity contest. But no one fares worse than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Fifty-eight percent of voters say they disapprove of the job the speaker is doing, compared to just 26 percent who say they approve of his work, according to a new Quinnipiac University survey. Boehner's woeful numbers raise a key question about 2014: Can and will Democrats try to pillory him across the midterm landscape the way Republicans lambasted then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2010?

The short answer is that it's too early to say. But if Democrats opt to go that route, their attacks won't likely resemble the ones the GOP launched against Pelosi.

The Hotline's Scott Bland recently took on the question of if and how Democrats will single out Boehner in 2014 a la Republicans' 2010 onslaught against Pelosi. He wrote:

While Pelosi was closely tied to Democratic policies that voters soured on over the course of 2010, such as cap and trade and the health care law, motivations for disliking Boehner are less focused. The speaker takes criticism from all sides these days, with some blaming him for acquiescing to tea-party forces and others disliking him for not giving more power to that wing of the GOP. That doesn't help Boehner's popularity, but it also makes using him to represent Congress's failures more difficult, since not everyone sees him as a driving force behind them. And it may make Boehner's unpopularity less intense than Pelosi's, who was also easily stereotyped as a San Francisco liberal.

Boehner's woes have been chiefly problems of process and gridlock. He's often had trouble bringing together an unruly caucus to agree on anything; he refused to hold a vote on a clean stopgap spending bill before Oct. 1, triggering a government shutdown; and even as many GOP voices have been calling for immigration reform, he's had to lead a slow and deliberate process in the House, given the conservative opposition that exists in his conference.

In short, it's the laws House Republicans have not made that have really defined Boehner's legacy. And he's just fine with that.

"We should not be judged by how many new laws we create," Boehner told CBS News in July. "We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We’ve got more laws than the administration could ever enforce."

By contrast, the 2010 campaign against Pelosi involved coupling her heavily defined image as a polarizing liberal Democrat with concrete policies she helped spearhead into law, chiefly the stimulus and the health-care law. Witness this ad the Michigan Republican Party ran against then-Rep. Mark Schauer (D) in 2010.

It's not clear yet that Boehner will be as polarizing come Election Day, or remain at the top of voters' minds as he's been in the last few months, with high-profile standoffs in Washington dominating the media's attention.

If Democrats single out Boehner, it will signal that they believe 1) He's become very well-known enough around the country, 2) He is linked in voters' minds to the GOP's resistance of the Democratic agenda, and 3) Democrats think resistance against an agenda can be as politically damaging as taking up an unpopular one.

Boehner's numbers make him ripe for attacks of some form -- there is little doubt about that. The question is whether or not such attacks can be effectively deployed in micro-targeted 30-second TV ads in House races next year. With less than a year before the midterm elections, we'll soon find out.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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