John Boehner: The Next Speaker of the House?

House Republican Leader John Boehner Carolyn Kaster / AP

Is Rep. John Boehner an empty suit—a sharp suit, to be sure, one Don Draper might wear—or is there more there? Sitting with him in the book-lined conference room of the City Club in Cleveland last week, it was kind of hard to tell. He's so laid-back you can hear the crickets chirp. A former colleague, Dick Armey, calls him the "Dean Martin of politics—he makes it all look easier than it is." In the era of the Tea Party, Boehner appears to be all cocktail party. He's vintage country-club Republican: lime-green ties; deep tan; a love of golf, red wine, and fat checks from fat cats. And if President Obama represents the politics of hope, Boehner is proud to stand for the politics of nope.

Two years ago in Denver, the charismatic Obama caught the political wave, addressing a blissed-out crowd of 80,000 on a stage set as a Greek temple with him as the high priest of new government activism. But voters remain dismayed by the economy, fearful of their future, and skeptical of the sweeping, expensive legislation Obama and his fellow Democrats have enacted. An anti-Democratic tide is building, and if the Republicans can win 39 House seats in November, Boehner could be speaker.

But who, exactly, is he? Boehner comes from a world unlike the one he now inhabits so effortlessly. Growing up, his family owned a bar, Andy's Café, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. The second of 12 children, he mopped floors and bused tables. He traces his demeanor to watching his dad's blunt, but soothing, way of dealing with patrons. "I guess that had a lot to do with who I am," he says with a shrug. (John Boehner shrugs a lot.) After playing at a renowned football school, Moeller, he joined the Navy and was honorably discharged with a bad back. Working part time, it took him seven years to graduate from college—he was a janitor in the building where he met a secretary who would become his wife. He built a plastic--packaging business, led a home-owners' association, won a seat in the Ohio Legislature during the Reagan landslide of 1984, and got elected to Congress in 1990.

Ironically, Boehner was a Tea Partier well before the Tea Party. Once in Washington, he joined Newt Gingrich's anti-establishment mujahedin, terrorizing insiders by attacking the House bank and other cushy congressional perks. Since then Boehner has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in the House. In many ways, he's the sum of all that he's not: He vowed to vote against earmarks and has kept his word. He's for cutting spending (except at the Pentagon). Like most self-made businessmen, he has a conveniently constricted view of government. He hates taxes—he wants to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich—and regulation, and downplays how government can improve people's lives and help enterprise thrive.

In the eyes of the Tea Partiers and their allies in the House, however, Boehner has committed at least two apostasies. In 2001 he worked with Democrats (and amiably so) to pass the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind legislation. In 2008 he felt duty-bound to push for the first TARP—and was humiliated when only a handful of Republicans voted for it. In general, the anti--establishment forces find him suspiciously at ease in Washington (his enthusiastic fundraising—he once handed out PAC checks on the House floor—has occasionally raised questions, even in his own caucus). But during his speech last week in Cleveland, in which he called for the president to fire his economic team, Boehner threw them some red meat, talking up his support of tax and spending cuts and dismissing Obama's $800 billion stimulus as a failure.

He'll have to keep doing that. "Just look who's winning our primaries," says Frank Luntz, a GOP strategist who helped launch Gingrich's rise. "Boehner will have some very ornery folks to deal with. He'll be under horrific pressure from the right." For now, his young and more confrontational No. 2, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, has promised not to challenge Boehner for the top job. That won't last. Cantor is as hungry as a Russian soldier at the Battle of Stalingrad. But no one on the right—the establishment, the Tea Party—should look past Boehner's ability. He was drawn to politics by a resentment of the powers that be. He's a survivor of intraparty struggle after intraparty struggle. He's a get-along guy known for making those around him look good (he has pledged to let junior members, even Tea Partiers, introduce their own amendments). And if you didn't know all of this, then, well, maybe that Deano impression really is spot on.

Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.