Velvet Gloves For The Gop

Congressman John Boehner crafts its milder message

Between his ethics woes and his abysmal public image, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the last person Republicans want out front promoting their agenda. What the GOP needs is a fresh face, someone who can put a kinder, gentler spin on its plans to balance the budget, cut federal programs, and slash regulations.

Enter Ohio Representative John A. Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner), chair of the 227-member House Republican caucus and chief message meister for his party's agenda on Capitol Hill. Tall and handsome, with piercing blue eyes, the 47-year-old former sales exec certainly makes a slick pitchman. And out front is where he spends his time these days, trying to calm voter qualms about Gingrich. If the Speaker's personal troubles worsen, Boehner's clout could grow.

Corporate America is certainly rooting for him. Many CEOs fret that if Gingrich falls, two Texas populists who love to bash Big Business will assume the helm--Majority Leader Richard K. Armey and GOP Whip Tom DeLay. "Boehner does an extraordinary job reaching out to us," says a top corporate lobbyist. "Armey and DeLay have a very negative view of Big Business."

Though no less conservative than other GOP leaders, Boehner says it's time to soften the edge on Republican revolutionary rhetoric. Instead of threatening to eliminate the Education Dept., for example, Republicans will talk about taking billions of dollars away from Washington bureaucrats and giving them back to states and communities so parents will have more control. Likewise, balancing the federal budget will be touted as a way to lower car and mortgage payments. "The 104th Congress was `the Reform Congress,"' he contends. "But the 105th will be about the quality of life for all our citizens."

With polls showing two-thirds of voters wanting Gingrich to step aside, the new plan calls for the acerbic Speaker to focus on strategy and let Boehner and others carry the message. Explains the Ohioan: "You are beginning to see more horizontal leadership, where a lot of us will be playing bigger roles."

And becoming targets: Despite Boehner's reputation for smoothness, some GOP colleagues blame him for the GOP's image as uncaring zealots. He's already butting heads with DeLay over control of the GOP message. Says a top strategist: "Boehner is taking hits."

The House GOP caucus chairman--No.4 in the hierarchy--didn't help his cause when he used a cellular phone for a sensitive pre-Christmas conference call with Gingrich and other GOP leaders. That enabled a Florida couple to intercept the call, in which the pols discussed ways to rebut charges of ethics violations by Gingrich. Newt had pledged to avoid such a counterattack.

GANG OF SEVEN. That's one of the few blunders Boehner has made in his rapid rise. He joined Congress only six years ago after running a small company representing makers of plastics and packaging products. He entered politics out of "sheer frustration that government was choking the free enterprise system to death," he says.

Boehner quickly made a name as a vitriolic critic of the way Democrats ran Congress. He was a member of the Gang of Seven freshmen who pushed House leaders to reveal the names of members who had bounced checks at the House bank. Then he used C-Span broadcasts of House proceedings to blast Democrats in the House Post Office scandal.

When Republicans took control of Capitol Hill in 1994, Boehner, a Gingrich confidant, got the job of communications strategist. One key accomplishment: getting disparate conservative groups to lobby together for the GOP agenda. "As a businessman, he relates to [our] issues," says Bruce Josten, senior vice-president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Still, as GOP approval ratings sank in the wake of the 1995 government shutdown, Republicans griped that their message was being mangled. "[We've] come across as too harsh and numbers-driven," says GOP strategist Frank I. Luntz. Some blamed Boehner. "He was too smug and has a backroom image," says one House Republican staffer. But his defenders say the problem wasn't the messenger. "We didn't have a Plan B for the government shutdown," says Representative Scott Klug (R-Wis.).

Boehner's job now is to help forge a successful Plan B so that the party can get past its Gingrich problem. If he succeeds, he'll earn the gratitude of his GOP colleagues--and perhaps move up a notch in the Republican firmament.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.