BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Newt Gingrich sneezes; John Boehner catches a cold.
The West Chester Republican is up against it right now, quite possibly on the verge of losing the leadership position he has held since the Republicans swept to power in the House four years ago on the back of Mr. Gingrich and his "Contract with America."
Mr. Boehner was at the scene of the Nov. 3 car wreck when the Republicans managed to defy history and actually lose five House seats in a mid-term election where the other party holds the White House.
But there is no evidence that Mr. Boehner was behind the wheel. When the smoke cleared, it was the House Speaker who was found clutching the steering wheel; and it didn't take much for the survivors to pry it out of his hands.
Nonetheless, when the House Republicans meet Wednesday to choose their leadership for the 106th Congress, Mr. Boehner could end up as one of the casualties.
He has been the chairman of the House Republican Conference, fourth-ranking member of the GOP leadership, right behind Mr. Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. One of the jobs of the conference chairman is to communicate, hence Mr. Boehner's not-infrequent appearances on the Sunday morning talk show circuit over the past four years.
Moreover, the conference chairman is the one who is supposed to write the script. You may have wondered why it is that, on the talk shows, Republican members all say almost exactly the same things in exactly the same words, and likewise for Democrats. The answer is that political discourse in America at the end of the 20th century consists mainly of memorizing a sheet of talking points, so that Republicans, be they in Boise or Bangor, are all reading off the same page. The conference chairman is in charge of talking points.
Well, in this election, somebody on the Republican side of the aisle forgot to write the talking points.
It's not really Mr. Boehner's fault that many Republican congressional candidates around the country didn't have much to talk about in this election. It seems Mr. Gingrich, the maximum leader, grabbed the script and scrawled Lewinsky on every page.
Back in January, in an interview with Gannett News Service, Mr. Boehner outlined what he thought was a reasonable election-year agenda for the Republican Congress - IRS reform, Superfund Reform, preserving the budget surplus, dealing with guaranteeing Social Security for the baby boomers.
"We have to quit doing all the things the federal government is not intended to do, that are best handled by states or local communities," Mr. Boehner said.
Sounded good at the time, but the Republicans in Congress didn't do that; and instead of picking up the 15 to 25 seats Mr. Boehner predicted in January, they lost five and were left with a bare majority of six.
So, with Mr. Gingrich already having walked the gangplank, Mr. Boehner finds himself facing a serious challenge from one of the rising stars of the Republican party, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma.
Mr. Watts is a true believer; he comes from the conservative wing of the party that eschews pork, hates taxes, despises big government and decries the moral decay of the nation.
And he is black. The only African-American Republican in Congress, as a matter of fact. In a party that has seen the gender gap steadily widen over the years and can barely get 10 percent of the African-American vote in a congressional election, people like Mr. Watts and Jennifer Dunn, a pro-choice Republican who is running for majority leader, could look very appealing to congressional Republicans as the faces they want to put out front.
It could be a grim week for West Chester.
Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org