He exudes the deadpan dignity of Robert Mitchum. A former high school athlete, the House Minority Leader has the carriage of a relentlessly tanned golfer. When his moment in the spotlight arrived, the audience expected Mitchum or maybe Clint Eastwood. Instead, John Boehner sounded like Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis.
"Hell, no!," he hollered at President Obama's health care plan. As a nominal leader, he was scampering to overtake his flock, fleeing toward wherever AM radio and cable television commanded. Shedding all dignity, Boehner screeched his succinct position, a Lina Lamont warbling "Singin' in the Rain." Boehner is from Ohio, home to presidents and political leaders. He did not emulate Robert A. Taft, but James Traficant.
His Kentucky colleague, Sen. Mitch McConnell, counts Henry Clay and John Sherman Cooper as his role models. Wise choices both, though these senators gradually became marginalized in their parties. Cooper, who lost several statewide elections, was a distinguished diplomat after World War II. By the time he left in the Senate in 1972, conservatives judged him bipartisan and dangerously moderate.
Clay was also a diplomat. He served as Secretary of State and lost three presidential races before the Whig Party drifted away from his proudest accomplishments. Clay was called "The Great Compromiser," a poison label today.
McConnell's strategy transcends that of the rowdier House. He acts as though he were the Majority Leader. The threat of a filibuster is his equalizer.
The Kentuckian would fit in a W.C. Fields movie, as Franklin Pangborn fuming and fussing at the star's antics. McConnell has auditioned for the part of another Fields sparring partner, Charlie McCarthy, a wooden dummy or "a flophouse for termites," as Fields called him. In the demanding role of Edgar Bergen, Charlie's puppeteer, is Frank Luntz, pollster, Orwellian word wizard and script doctor.
The GOP script is monosyllabic. Its subtitles read Non, Nein, Nyet. So Luntz expands the script by saying everything in the Democratic banking bill is the opposite of what it is. The bill doesn't bail out banks, investment behemoths are benign, peaceful friends of the little guy, war is peace and up is down. As the Queen told Alice in Wonderland, "I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
If this plot does not work out, Boehner-McConnell may not be a viable buddy movie. House members see some Republican senators reluctant to side with Wall Street, so they want Boehner to screech again. If McConnell abandons his "Groundhog Day" rite of perpetual naysaying, the House GOP will demand a sequel to "Ishtar."
Both Boehner and McConnell have deluded themselves into believing they have already triumphed. Health care was to be Obama's Waterloo, but he won that battle. Those he defeated have become Napoleons, Walter Brennans in skimpy nightshirts, wandering the landscape and proclaiming themselves emperors.
The Republican strategy, with all its feints and tactics, recalls a line from one of Mitchum's finest performances in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." Based on a gritty crime novel by George V. Higgins, its small-time gangsters flavor their schemes with folk wisdom. As a gun-runner warily eyes a deal, he says, "This life's hard, man. It's harder if you're stupid."