John Boehner in the Spotlight

Democrats try to cast John Boehner as the face of the “same old” Republican Party.

Democrats are preparing to focus their campaign rhetoric this fall on the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Congressman John Boehner of Ohio.

Boehner, who will likely succeed Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House if the Republicans win a majority in the chamber, isn’t well-known to Americans across the country but now thrust into the spotlight under pressure from both parties.

Fox News reports that Democrats are planning to frame the November midterm elections as a choice between the two parties — “a contest they believe they have a chance to win” — instead of a referendum on Democratic leadership in Washington, “which they fear they would lose.”

The strategy makes sense. President Barack Obama’s popularity has been trailing in the polls lately while many of his party’s lawmakers in both houses of Congress are clinging to their seats with perilously low approval ratings.

At the same time, Republicans are still very much without direction and have thrived almost entirely in opposition to the Democrats’ agenda. This has prompted senior Democrats to allege that the other party is in fact the “Party of Limbaugh, Beck and Palin,” referring to two popular right-wing commentators and the former governor and vice presidential candidate from Alaska who is now hailed as a prominent figure in the Tea Party movement. For the majority of Americans, left and center, this conservative triumvirate dwells on the fringe of the political spectrum and is wholly unelectable.

This puts the Republican Party in a tough spot. It has to appeal to libertarian Tea Party enthusiasts and the bulk of conservative voters at the same time. Both may fret about this administration’s interventionist economic policies but they differ very much on priorities and social issues.

The tea partiers claim to favor limited government but a majority of Americans still values the pervasive entitlements programs that are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which are in desperate need of reform.

The “religious right” — a Republican stronghold for over two decades — still worries about issues like abortion and gay marriage, something moderates wouldn’t rank among their political priorities if they care about them very much at all.

Religious conservatives have had little reason to warm up to John Boehner so far. His voting record has been more pro-business than pro-life and as minority leader he has chosen to target Democrats almost exclusively on their economic policy failures, avoiding positions on anything that could stir controversy with the Republican base.

The New York Times this week was critical of Boehner’s cozying up to big business, painting him as one “tightly bound to lobbyists” and member of an ol’ boy network of perpetually-tanned, sharply-tailored fat cats who happily settle legislation over a game of golf.

According to the Times, big corporations “have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Boehner’s campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and waterfront bashes and are now leading fundraising efforts for his Boehner for Speaker campaign, which is soliciting checks of up to $37,800 each, the maximum allowed.”

As Democrats try to cast Boehner as the face of the Republican Party, “his ties to lobbyists,” according to the newspaper, cultivated since he came to Washington almost twenty years ago, “are coming under attack.”

The president himself has been no stranger to portraying Republicans as in bed with special interests. Last April, he blamed the opposition for takings its cues from Wall Street as it did its best to stall passage of financial reform legislation. In August, Vice President Joe Biden warned that Boehner “and his party ran this economy and the middle class literally into the ground.” On Monday, Obama charged that the “man who thinks he’s going to be speaker” favored tax loopholes for “shipping jobs and profits overseas.” Last Wednesday, he added that “there were no new policies from Mr Boehner.”

This sort of rhetoric ties in perfectly with the Democratic strategy of pretending that Republicans have no new ideas; that they have become the “Party of No” and, if elected, would enact policies similar to those that supposedly caused the recession.

“It’s still fear versus hope,” said the president. Republicans want to cut taxes, especially for millionaires; cut regulations; cut trade deals; cut back on investments passed as “stimulus” in the wake of the economic downturn two years ago — “that, too, is what this election is about.”

Boehner responded to criticism on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, arguing that to extend existing tax rates — even when, after eight years, Democrats still refer to them as “tax cuts” — would undo part of the uncertainty currently looming over the American economy, “so that small businesses can plan and reinvest in their business and the new economy” instead.

Cutting taxes alone won’t do. “I think the other thing that has to happen is that we’ve got to cut spending,” said Boehner. “If we cut spending we will help our economy, we will send signals to the markets, we will send signals to the business community, that Washington’s attempting to get its fiscal house in order.”

The federal government is running a $1 trillion deficit, adding to a debt that already comprises more than 60 percent of economic output.

Around one in ten Americans is out of work. The administration is proposing to invest billions more in infrastructure projects to help job creation.

Boehner not only rejected the notion that his own party has no fresh ideas; he urged Democrats to stop trying ideas that have failed. “The president says we’ve had no new ideas but we’ve offered him new ideas for the last twenty months. And speaking of new, I wonder what’s new about more stimulus spending, more taxes and more uncertainty for American small businesses?”

“If the president wants to get serious and wants to do something new,” Boehner added, “why don’t we cut spending and get rid of this notion that we can continue to spend our way back to prosperity?”