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Boehner steps back to lead

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14:  U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during a news conference November 14, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House Republicans have picked their choices of leadership for the 113th Congress.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during a news conference November 14, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The House Republicans have picked their choices of leadership for the 113th Congress. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


A master in the art of human nature understands there is a time to lead, and then there's a time to let the other guy take the risk of leading.

Very few people in this city grasp the potent negotiating power that comes from such a realization.

In politics, the minute you win is also the moment you start losing, because you immediately start bleeding political capital — and the minute you lose is the beginning of climbing out from the bottom of the barrel.

John Boehner didn't awake one morning to find himself speaker of the House; he got there through a series of tough setbacks that took him from leadership at a young age to being just one of 435 congressmen and back again, with plenty of declarations that his career had fizzled.

His fellow Republicans understand that, too — which is why, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor nominated him last week to retain his speakership, Boehner was greeted with a warm standing ovation. He will be formally re-elected speaker by a vote in the House when the 113th Congress convenes in January.

Many reporters, hung-over conservatives and the “Twitterverse” have questioned why Boehner called on President Obama to step up with a solution to the nation's pending “fiscal cliff,” rather than taking the lead himself.

What they do not understand is that, for Boehner, it was the only way back to a position of power for his party.

He may be taking his cues from a legendary predecessor — Tip O'Neill.

Republicans emerged from the 1980 presidential election with substantial gains; they held the White House, seized control of the Senate and gained a staggering 33 seats in the House, although that chamber remained controlled by Democrats, with O'Neill as its new speaker.

Most headlines of the day described Democrats in the bleakest of terms, not much different from today's headlines about Republicans.

O'Neill understood those bruising losses marked the beginning of a comeback, at least in the House. And he knew the best thing was to allow President Reagan to take the lead on the economy and taxes.

Two years later, after taking all of the risks, Reagan also took all of the political hits; Democrats picked up 27 House seats in midterm elections, leaving the GOP with the fewest seats it has held between 1980 and today.

Reagan had no choice but to bargain with Democrats.

Boehner — the son of a bar owner and one of 12 children in a Democrat household in suburban Cincinnati — is now the Republican Party's de facto leader, the one left to work with the president on averting a fiscal plunge.

His smartest move came the day after the election, when he pushed the leadership mantle onto President Obama.

“We're ready to be led, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans,” Boehner declared. “We want you to lead — not as a liberal or a conservative, but as the president of the United States of America.”

He essentially told the president, “Fine, Obama, let's go. We're waiting for you to lead, and we can't wait to hear your ideas.”

Boehner knows he has no political capital to expend right now, but Obama has plenty. The Ohio congressman has a demoralized party, spooked by its losses, and he knows the only reason Republicans still hold the House is because of a crazy little thing called gerrymandering.

Boehner would keep losing if he believed he had just won simply because he holds a House majority. So if he wants to lead, he has to step back and allow Obama to lose his lead.

That's why a walk through the halls of Capitol Hill found a growing number of House members, in leadership and on the bench, as well as senators more than willing to back up the speaker on his call for the president to “bring it on” when it comes to offering up some substantial solutions.

One of those is Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

“Boehner is right,” he said in an interview with the Trib. “The president keeps reminding us he just won an election. It's time for the president to start talking about what he has to offer and put something on the table.”

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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