The Boehner Upset

John Boehner congressional campaign button

hide captionMeet the new House majority leader. Is he the next speaker?

Pete McCloskey button

hide captionPete McCloskey took on President Nixon in the 1972 GOP primaries over the Vietnam War.

Vice President Sherman button

hide captionAaron Sorkin had nothing to do with Vice President Sherman's death a week before the 1912 election.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't Clay beating Liston, or Villanova topping Georgetown. Nonetheless, the victory of Ohio Republican Congressman John Boehner over Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) to succeed Tom DeLay as House majority leader was a shocker. And yet, given Blunt's particularly close relationship with DeLay –- who was forced to give up his post after an indictment in Texas and who might yet get caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal -– it shouldn't have been.

It seemed that Blunt was perfectly situated to move up the leadership ladder. When DeLay became whip after the 1998 elections, he named Blunt as his chief deputy. When DeLay ascended to leader, Blunt advanced to whip. And when DeLay ceded his title, Dennis Hastert — who himself became speaker thanks to DeLay — named Blunt as acting majority leader. In that capacity, Blunt was in a position to work closely with and do favors for the Republicans in the House. Personally, he was popular within the conference, eager to bridge differences among the members, with none of the hard edges that DeLay was universally known for.

But if DeLay was thuggish and vindictive at times, he was also an extremely effective leader. He knew how to cajole and twist arms, and he knew how to count. Blunt was no DeLay. Part of it wasn't entirely his fault; as President Bush (and support for his policies) sank in the polls, the fate of the Republicans in Congress fell along with him. An unpopular war, an unsteady response to the Katrina tragedy, and a growing ethics problem on Capitol Hill put the GOP on the defensive, and more and more vulnerable lawmakers found it necessary to plot independent courses.

But Blunt didn't lose because of any shortcomings in his job performance. He was hampered by a serious appearance problem. His power existed because of Tom DeLay. That's all well and good when DeLay was the toast of the town. But by now, with the uncertainty over his Texas legal problems and Abramoff connections, he had become an albatross for Blunt. Plus, the feeling was if lobbyists became the new dirty word in Washington, then why reward Blunt, who is in bed with lobbyists? (Or at least one of them: his wife, Abigail Perlman, is a lobbyist for Philip Morris.)

Boehner had his vulnerabilities too. He also has strong connections to K Street. Many recall the time when he went onto the House floor and literally gave out checks from the tobacco industry to lawmakers. (Immediately after his election as leader, the Democratic National Committee headlined a release with this: "A Fresh Start? House GOP Replaces DeLay With Lobbyist Lap Dog.")

Boehner was actually drummed out of the leadership back in '98, along with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned after his party suffered a backlash stemming from the impeachment by the GOP Congress of President Clinton over l'affaire Lewinsky. But Boehner has worked his way back into the graces of his fellow Republicans through hard work, reaching out to Democrats to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 (an act which, it should be added, was not a favorite of small-government conservatives). And the fact that he was long at odds with DeLay helped, especially at a time when Republicans were desperate to shed the "culture of corruption" label bestowed upon them by the Democrats.

It's interesting how things work in Washington in that Boehner, in Congress since 1991 (longer than Blunt or the third candidate in the leadership race, Arizona's John Shadegg), came across as a fresh face. And with a Democratic takeover of the House in November at the least a possibility, electing a DeLay foe as majority leader (instead of a DeLay ally) should have been a no-brainer. As it turned out, it was.

The election, it should be pointed out, came on Ground Hog Day. And the unmistakable message was thus: Republicans didn't want to vote for a new majority leader and see Tom DeLay's shadow.

Box Score: What made Boehner's second-ballot win that more astounding was the tally after the first ballot: Blunt 110, Boehner 79, Shadegg 40 (with two votes going to Kansas' Jim Ryun). Blunt needed to pick up only seven more votes on the second ballot to win. But the second ballot became a battle of Blunt vs. Not Blunt. Thus, apparently every one of Shadegg's supporters switched to Boehner. Blunt even lost one of his own backers in the process — so much for his skill at counting votes. The final vote was Boehner 122, Blunt 109.

Enough Already: For the seven of you out there who can't get enough of this stuff, the drama in this year's race for House majority leader ranks up there with the Republican race for House minority whip in the spring of 1989 and the Democratic race for House majority leader in December of 1976. The '89 GOP race came about because of two events: first, the election of House Republican Whip Trent Lott to the Senate in 1988, and then the decision by the first President Bush to appoint his successor as whip, Wyoming's Dick Cheney, as Secretary of Defense in early 1989. Republican rank and file distress over having spent decades in the minority led to Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a party firebrand who was pushing the ethics investigation of Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, winning the whipship in an upset over Edward Madigan of Illinois, a legislative tactician backed by the party establishment, by a vote of 87-85. It was a sign of things to come; when the GOP captured the House in 1994, Gingrich became speaker.

The 1976 race on the Democratic side was caused by the retirement of Speaker Carl Albert, and the ascension of Majority Leader Tip O'Neill to replace him. That left open the majority leader post, which was sought by four men: Richard Bolling (MO), the second-ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee; Phillip Burton (CA), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; John McFall (CA), the majority whip; and Jim Wright (TX), a deputy whip and the choice of conservative Dems. Burton was considered the clear frontrunner in the race. But he had a miserable working relationship with O'Neill and a famous reputation for arrogance and hunger for power. On the first ballot, the tally was Burton 106, Bolling 81, Wright 77 and McFall 31. The second ballot, with McFall gone, was Burton 107, Wright 95 and Bolling 93. With Bolling out for the third ballot, Wright became the "anybody but Burton" candidate, and, with the quiet support of O'Neill, he defeated Burton by the count of 148-147.

Boy, those were the days, huh?

On to the questions!

Q: Replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Samuel Alito is, to me, a radical and extreme step. Can you think of any other time when a Supreme Court nominee replaced a far more moderate justice? — William Elliott, San Francisco

A: Yes, from both sides of the political spectrum. In 1993, President Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who at one point had been the legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to succeed Justice Byron White, a moderate conservative who was one of two dissenters in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the right to an abortion. In 1967, President Johnson named Thurgood Marshall, a former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the chief counsel in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools, to succeed Justice Tom Clark, a Truman appointee who had become a strong conservative in his later years. A radical switcheroo in the opposite direction came in 1991, when Marshall, an unabashed liberal, was replaced by Clarence Thomas, a strong conservative.

Q: I see that Pete McCloskey is trying to return to Congress in California. I remember when he challenged President Nixon in the '72 primaries. If McCloskey wins this year, will the amount of time in between his congressional terms be a record? — Christine Sweeney, Madison, Wis.

A: I don't see McCloskey, who is 78 years old, having much of a chance in the June 6 GOP primary against Rep. Richard Pombo (R-11th), even if there are some ethics concerns about the incumbent. McCloskey gave up his House seat in 1982 for an ill-fated bid for the GOP Senate nomination and hasn't been on a ballot since. The 11th District isn't even the same area McCloskey represented when he was in Congress (1967-82). Still, if he somehow managed to oust Pombo and win in November, it would be a return after 24 years. I'm not sure if this would be a record, but it would be longer than the 22 years between the first (1917-18) and second (1941-42) terms for Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin, who happened to be the only person to vote against both world wars while in Congress. I don't know anyone else who returned to Congress after that long of an exodus.

Q: John Spencer, who portrays Democratic vice presidential nominee Leo McGarry on The West Wing, died in December. In real life, how many times has a vice presidential nominee died during a presidential campaign? I can only think of one: Vice President James Sherman, in 1912. — Mark Bernkopf, Arlington, Va.

A: That's the only one I can think of as well. Vice President Sherman died on Oct. 30, 1912, six days before the election that would vote the Taft-Sherman administration out of office. The Republican National Committee named Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, as Sherman's replacement in order for the GOP ticket to receive the electoral votes of the few states it carried.

Q: My husband and I recently saw the film Good Night, And Good Luck, which got us to wondering whatever happened to Tierney McCarthy? Joe McCarthy's wife adopted the girl in the hopes that being a father would help him recover from his chronic alcoholism and give him new direction after being drummed out of the Senate. — Kayne Doumani, San Francisco

A: I've had your question for nearly four months now and have still been unable to find the answer to this. Ordinarily I don't like running questions to which I can't supply an answer, but I'm intrigued by this one. Does anyone know Ms. McCarthy's whereabouts?

Q: I was wondering why no one is asking who the defense contractors are who bribed [now former] Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA). Why isn't the press demanding that the contractors be named and the companies and individuals involved punished? — Yvonne Martinez, Calif.

A: The names of the defense contractors have never been a secret. They are Mitchell Wade, the former president of MZM Inc. (a defense intelligence firm), and Brent Wilkes of defense contractor ADCS Inc. Wade was the person who bought Cunningham's San Diego house for $1.67 million in 2003 and sold it at a $700,000 loss a year later. Wade and Wilkes continue to be part of the investigation currently underway by the Justice Department, along with Tom Kontogiannis, a New York real estate developer. Cunningham, who resigned from the House last November, is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 27.

Q: My husband listens to no other station than KUHF and he is an avid political junkie. I had hoped to find books on politics listed among the NPR Holiday Books list, but alas there were none. Do you have any recommendations? — Mary Kanz, Galveston, Texas

A: I apologize that I couldn't squeeze this question into my column before Christmas, but I've always said there's nothing like a good political book that makes Valentine's Day a special occasion. (Truth be told, I have never said that.)

There are three political books from 2005 that I can heartily recommend. The first is Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush V. Gore, by James Patterson (Oxford University Press). Restless Giant is not merely a political book; it's a keen observation of social and cultural changes that America experienced since 1974.

Lewis Gould's The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (Basic Books) is a wonderful compilation of some of the giants and lesser types who roamed the corridors of the Senate in its long history.

The third is Ethan Rarick's splendid biography of former California Governor Edmund G. β€œPat” Brown, entitled California Rising (University of California Press). It details Brown's rise, along with that of his Democratic Party, at a time when California was solidly Republican, and it chronicles Brown's relationship with some of the state's fascinating figures, everyone from Sam Yorty to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan.

One book I frankly have not read, but one that has been strongly recommended to me, is The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer (Farrar Straus Giroux). It has been described as a must-read study at the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and depose the regime of Saddam Hussein.

This day in political history: The Senate confirms Federal Appeals Court Judge Anthony Kennedy to the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 97-0. Kennedy is President Reagan's third choice to succeed retiring Justice Lewis Powell Jr. The first, Robert Bork, was defeated by the Senate in 1987. The second, Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew after it was revealed he had smoked marijuana (Feb. 3, 1988).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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