Obama Critic Would Kill Ants in Tanning Bed: Margaret Carlson

The risk in going nuclear, politically, is the likelihood of a retaliatory strike.

House Minority Leader John Boehner emerged from relative obscurity last week to denounce the financial-regulation bill as “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.” A day after that quote was published, President Barack Obama launched Boehner’s words right back at him: “That’s what he said -- he compared the financial crisis to an ant,” the president told a Wisconsin crowd. “This is the same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly 8 million jobs, same crisis that cost people their homes, their life savings.”

Boehner has never been so high profile -- or so wrong. On the stupidity scale, his comment is up there with Representative Joe Barton calling the $20 billion fund for victims of the Gulf oil spill a White House “shakedown.”

Together, these comments reveal the GOP’s strategy of redefining populism so that free enterprise is “us” and those trying to rein it in -- the socialists, you know -- are “them.”

Defending BP Plc, as we learned, wasn’t just a lark by Barton. The day before, “Chicago-Style Political Shakedown” was the headline on a press release issued by the Republican Study Committee, which lists 115 House Republicans as members. And Republicans clearly intended to do little more than tinker at the margins of the financial crisis, leaving their corporate allies -- also known as the perpetrators of the crisis -- to go out and do it again.

Out Loud

Neither Barton nor Boehner uttered anything their party doesn’t agree with. The trouble was, they said it out loud. It’s best to protect oil companies and Wall Street in the quiet of a backroom, even if, these days, Boehner is the only person making it smoke-filled.

In his role as messenger for this new Republican populism, Boehner, who harbors dreams of being House speaker some day, no doubt feels elevated by the president’s attention.

Beloved by late-night comedians as the poor man’s George Hamilton, on account of the orange glow given off by his industrial-strength tan, Boehner usually is more shop steward than idea man, and proud of it.

When the president called him out on his ant analogy, Boehner took it as an invitation to take it outside for a rumble. At a press conference, mostly ignoring the substance of the issue, he accused a “whining” Obama of “childish partisanship.” Then he slinked back to the undisclosed location of his personal tanning salon.

Hit the Links

A smoker, a duffer, a man who takes seriously the admonition not to regret on your deathbed that you spent too much time in the office, Boehner is the guy behind the scenes moving the levers of retail politics as a prodigious fundraiser, but with an asterisk: If you’ve got a tough race in Maine and it’s winter, don’t look for Boehner in Bangor. His travels conform to his taste for golf in a warm clime with a cool drink waiting in a cocktail lounge with an ample smoking section.

Surprised that Boehner had stepped in it as he stepped out to swat at Obama, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who now hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, offered his insight on Boehner’s, shall we say, less than rigorous work ethic.

Boehner owes a giant thank-you to Michael Steele -- the other man of color in the GOP -- for cutting short what could have become a nasty national debate on his work habits.

Flunking History

In an unfathomable assault, Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said at a party fundraiser in Connecticut that Afghanistan is “a war of Obama’s choosing.” He presumably forgot that America’s longest war started under a Republican, George W. Bush, in response to a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Even after some big-name Republicans called on him to resign, Steele elaborated on his history-flunking comments rather than retract them.

Like Barton and Boehner before him, Steele may well have been expressing, or at least previewing, a real Republican Party tenet and talking point. For the moment, Republicans are officially in favor of the troubled U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, at least until they can defeat Obama by being against it.

A common thread through the financial crisis, the Gulf oil spill and Afghanistan is that Democrats are counting on voters to recognize that doing nothing wasn’t a viable option. Democrats stepped up to do what they could to prevent the next bailout, compensate the victims of corporate recklessness and salvage a war that must be won. In November, we’ll see whether voters paid close-enough attention to thank Democrats, rather than punish them.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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