Softball practice in Boehner Land

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 16, 2010;

The mood in Boehner Land is anxious.

On Wednesday morning, Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner held his first Capitol Hill news conference since election handicappers began to predict with high confidence a Republican takeover of the House. The Ohio Republican was a bundle of nervous energy.

He let out an audible "oooh" when he saw the crowd awaiting him in the television studio. He licked his lips, checked his jacket button, and rolled his shoulders back. During his brief time on the podium, he checked the same jacket button no fewer than nine times and executed several additional lip licks and shoulder rolls.

The questioning of Boehner began at 10:27 a.m. Forty-three seconds later, a Republican leadership aide, Matt Lloyd, tried to put an end to it. "Last question!" he shouted.

Reporters only laughed at the young man. "Good try, boys," Boehner said to the staff.

It's not surprising that Boehner, and those around him, are uneasy. Expectations are that he'll receive the speaker's gavel from Nancy Pelosi in January -- unless he screws up.

Democrats are only too happy to facilitate said screw-up. They've launched a relentless campaign portraying him as a cartoon-character plutocrat and "friend of lobbyists everywhere." A new Democratic Party ad shows a gated "Boehner Land" amusement park ("get in the door for $37,000").

His loyal Republican lieutenants, meanwhile, are sending signals that they wouldn't mind if Boehner stumbled. A new book, "Young Guns," by three of them makes only passing reference to Boehner and contains a foreword (by Fred Barnes) speculating about one of the authors, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), assuming the speakership.

Boehner has already stumbled under the pressure. In a dismal performance on "Face the Nation" on Sunday, he was flummoxed when Bob Schieffer questioned him about his smoking, and he incautiously said he would be willing to abandon the continuation of George W. Bush's tax cut for the wealthy.

His loyal lieutenants let it be known that Boehner wasn't speaking for them, and the speaker-in-waiting delivered a recantation at his Wednesday news conference.

"Do you still stand by what you said Sunday?"

"I said Sunday about five times that I want to extend all of the current tax rates," Boehner said.

But what if giving up the tax cut for the wealthy "is your only option, as you said Sunday?"

"I want to extend all of the current tax rates," Boehner replied. It was then that the aide tried to cut off questioning, to no avail.

"Speaker Boehner!" Gannett News's Malia Rulon called out cheekily. "Oops, my bad." The speaker-in-waiting stifled a grin as Rulon continued: "What do you think about, one, you becoming speaker? . . . And number two, what do you think about all these people talking about this?"

Boehner already looked the part of speaker: Polished tassel loafers and perfectly tailored suit, a quarter-inch of white cuff revealed at the wrist. But he wasn't ready to talk about it. "Well, I think it's all a bit premature," he demurred.

He gave curt answers to a few more questions before turning to leave.

"Wait!" the Hill newspaper's Molly Hooper called after him. "The DNC is really targeting you with ads and I'm wondering. . . . "

"Oh, Molly, God bless you," Boehner answered, still walking away.

"It was a softball, dude!" Hooper protested.

Sorry. In Boehner Land, even softballs will be regarded with suspicion until Election Day.

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