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Elevating John Boehner (and will it work)



Will John Boehner be the next Speaker of the House? AP Photo

The White House has become very interested in House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) of late.

In a speech last week in Ohio, President Barack Obama mentioned Boehner a whopping eight times(!) and White House surrogates spent the weekend highlighting a New York Times piece detailing his ties to lobbyists.

And, starting tomorrow morning, the Democratic National Committee will launch an ad on national cable stations that derides Boehner as unconcerned about creating middle class jobs.

Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, explained the focus on Boehner by noting that "elections are about choices and it is critical that we make clear that the Republican Party wants to return to the policies that created the economic crisis."

So, will it work?

The most obvious problem in the "Blame Boehner" strategy is that large swaths of the American public don't know who he is.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted earlier this month, nearly four in ten Americans (39 percent) didn't know enough about Boehner to offer an opinion of him. (Of those who did have an opinion, 22 percent saw him in a favorable light while 23 percent viewed him unfavorably.)

Those numbers are roughly consistent with a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll in April that showed 55 percent of Americans had never heard of Boehner.

The difficulty of elevating Congressional leaders is nothing new in American politics. Ever since Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became the unpopular face of the Republican House majority in the late 1990s, Republicans have been trying to replicate that strategy with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.)

In the 2006 and 2008 election -- and even in the Pennsylvania 12th district special election earlier this year, Republican candidates sought -- unsuccessfully -- to link their Democratic opponents to Pelosi. Those efforts failed in large part because not enough people in, say, Ohio, knew the California Democrat and even fewer thought she had anything to do with their own Member of Congress.

(Republicans appear set to try that tact again this November with ads across the country mentioning Pelosi who is, clearly, far better known now than she was in 2006.)

While the short term political prognosis for the Boehner attacks may be somewhat shaky, that doesn't mean there aren't gains to be made here by Democrats.

First, on a very basic level -- and that's almost always what matters in politics -- the focus on Boehner (and, particularly, whether he meant to indicate he would support President Obama's tax proposal over the weekend) takes the focus off of the White House and Congressional Democrats.

And, that's a good thing for a party who has drawn lots and lots of negative attention over the past few weeks -- from the still sluggish economy to the debate over the proposed New York City Islamic center to the pending House ethics trials for Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

The more the press -- and, particularly, cable television -- spends its time on Boehner and what Republicans will do if they win the majority, the less time they have to talk about the economy and what the Obama Administration is doing about it.

Second, there is a very real possibility that Boehner will be Speaker of the House when the 112th Congress reconvenes.

Defining him as early as possible then could work in the White House's favor as President Obama will be looking for a foil (ala Bill Clinton and Gingrich in the mid 1990s) to help him make his case to the American people in 2012.

(The White House strategy of elevating Boehner's profile is delivering returns; already MSNBC has run several segments today around the theme "Who is John Boehner?")

One senior Democratic party official rejected the idea that attention being paid to Boehner lately is about anything beyond this November's election. "It's about 2010, not 2011 and framing the choice," said the source.

Still, there are clearly residual benefits for the White House -- and the Democratic party more broadly -- of introducing the American people to Boehner on their terms rather than allowing him to do it on his own time line.

And, given Boehner's relatively low profile, it's almost certain that attempts to elevate him are a several election cycle endeavor rather than an instant electoral success.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 13, 2010; 1:31 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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