In the remainder of our interview, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) talked about the Tea Party movement, taxes, and the reaction of voters and his friends to his new high-profile position.
I asked Boehner whether there was tension between elected Republicans and Tea Partyers. He smiled, for certainly he’d been asked this many times. He told me, “I’ve watched this [discussion] all year. And when I give speeches I talk about it. What Tea Party people and average Republicans want are jobs, for us to deal with the debt and spending, and for us to get rid of Obamacare.” There is, he says, “no daylight” between activists and the House Republicans’ agenda.
He told his caucus when he first met with the new Republican majority, “Get to know these people. We’re going to have to earn their votes.” Tea Party groups, he said, are overwhelmingly just “average Americans.” Most have never been involved in the political process. Boehner is emphatic: “We should welcome these entrants into the political process. We should welcome their energy.” But he’s candid that the fiscal hawks are hard to please. He laughed and said (without rancor), “I’ve been called every name in the book — ‘spineless,’ ‘RINO.’” (One senses the list is not comprehensive.)
He continued, “In the broader debate the change we’ve seen in December and January was how much more we were spending. Now it’s how much we are going to cut. It is clearly our biggest success.”
He thinks that seriousness about getting our fiscal house in order is getting through to the public and investors. “They are beginning to see we are serious. You see yields [on bonds] going down. Bond prices are going up.”
Boehner objected when I asked if tax reform wasn’t dead. He was emphatic, “Dave Camp [chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee] is doing a lot of work.” Hearings are upcoming, he stressed. And unlike other issues, he credits the White House with some “serious reaching out.” He doesn’t see this as part of the debt limit discussions (Republicans have ruled out tax hikes), but plainly this is a subject he cares about. Our current tax code, he said, needs to allow us to be more competitive. On the series of tax hikes the White House has proposed, he said simply, “I don’t see any appetite among the American people for higher taxes.”
He then segued into a discussion of the interplay between fiscal discipline and economic growth. “We can’t cut our way to prosperity,” he said, “but you can’t spend your way to prosperity either.” His economic agenda, he told me, “has three things. We need to cut discretionary spending. We need to look at all mandatory spending. And we have to have real economic growth.” As for growth, he pointed to the adverse impact of a raft of new regulations. “If you step back,” he said, “you can see they are on the verge of making hundreds and hundreds of new regulations.”He points to Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency and the financial reform statute. These, he said, “slow our economy, drive up the cost of doing business in the U.S. and send jobs overseas.” Last week, therefore, the House therefore rolled out its jobs initiative .
That plan includes tax reform (both individual and corporate), regulation reduction, review of our visa system (“to determine the needs of American employers and the reforms necessary to ensure that American businesses maintain their leading edge in innovation and technology development), review of the Food and Drug Administration drug approval process and expanding development of domestic energy supplies.
I ask him if there have been any surprises since taking over the speakership. He looked a little sheepish, “The only surprise has been all these pictures and autographs” people want. He laughed, “People have even sung to me!”
“There was one lady. She came right up and said, ‘I don’t like you!’But she was very nice about it.” He also told me that a group of his closest friends in the House took him out for dinner the night before. “They said, ‘Are you okay? Really, are you all right?’ ” He shrugged. “I told ’em there was no reason to worry.”
That steadiness of purpose is perhaps Boehner’s defining feature. He has no doubt that the conservative economic agenda is the right one, and neither the praise nor the criticism thrown his way seems to have affected him. It might be a good idea for the rest of the Republicans in Congress, the conservative pundits and the candidates to develop that same focus and equanimity.