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The partisan rancor beneath Boehner's rhetoric

"We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," says Republican John A. Boehner.
"We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," says Republican John A. Boehner. (Bill Clark/roll Call Via Getty Images)

He recalled his time as a committee chairman, when he worked cooperatively with Edward M. Kennedy and other Democrats on education legislation. "If Ted Kennedy and I can work together and find enough common ground to move the ball down the field, there isn't any reason why members should not be spending more time working together," he said.

Skeptics will doubt Boehner's sincerity or capability, given the polarized environment in Washington and the role he has played the past 18 months in helping erect a wall of opposition -- obstruction, say the Democrats -- to Obama's agenda.

They will recall Boehner's fiery and impassioned speech on the House floor at the close of the health-care debate -- punctuated by "Hell, no! . . . Hell, no!" -- as indicative of a leader who has given in to the angriest of those in the party's base. They will wonder whether the Boehner who worked with Kennedy and others is the kind of speaker anti-Obama Republicans really want.

Boehner said there will be plenty of disagreements with the White House if Republicans are in charge of the House. But he added: "A lot of scar tissue's been built up, by both parties, over the last 10 years. It needs to be solved for the long-term good of the country."

Sixteen years ago, as Republicans were on the cusp of winning control of the House for the first time in 40 years, Newt Gingrich talked about his role as future speaker in flamboyant terms. "I think I am a transformational figure," he said at the time, offering a preview of the clashing, confrontational style he wielded in his battles with the Clinton White House.

Boehner was a Gingrich lieutenant in those days, though he grew weary of the Georgia congressman's tactics. Eventually he fell out of favor and, after Gingrich's departure, out of leadership. In the interview, he conveyed a sense that he would adopt a different approach but when asked in what ways he would be a different kind of speaker than Gingrich, he said, "I haven't thought a great deal about it."

Boehner believes Republicans have not yet earned back the trust of the American people. "We dug ourselves a big hole in '04, '05, '06, and we paid for it," he said. "And then with what happened in the presidential race, we paid for it again. We've made some progress. . . . But we've got to continue to prove to people that we are who we say we are."

But he dismissed a question about whether the party is being pushed too far to the right by "tea party" activists or candidates who enjoy their support, such as Senate nominees Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada. "The voters in those states have the opportunity to decide who the nominee's going to be," he said. "All I can tell you is what we have done here. There's been a great deal of unity."

Boehner also said Obama bears considerable responsibility for the poisoned politics in Washington. "I remember all the conversations with the president about post-partisan politics. He's done nothing to solve that. I remember all the conversations with the president about working in the middle. None of that. It wasn't about the specifics about this, that or whatever. It's about the overall direction he's gone. He has not lived up to his promises."

Four months before the midterms, Boehner does not sound in a conciliatory mood, raising the question of whether he could lead a party that has thrived through its united and angry opposition to the president and still bring harmony on Capitol Hill. In a few months, he could be put to that test.

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