Dan Lungren got the forum he requested on the Republican future, but little else. John Boehner was easily re-elected House Minority Leader by a shrinking Republican caucus. I haven’t seen or heard any numbers to compare to Mike Pence’s unsuccessful challenge in 2006, but Lungren’s was little more than a protest candidacy. There were some leadership changes — Eric Cantor was elected minority whip and, in the biggest concession to conservatives, Pence was elected conference chairman — but those were basically preordained, as Roy Blunt and Adam Putnam stepped down and Boehner endorsed their replacements. Among them, only Pence opposed the Wall Street bailout.
Two things factored into this result: One is that Republicans don’t blame Boehner for their losses. To some extent, that is understandable. President Bush’s unpopularity, the Iraq war, and the economic contraction aren’t really to be laid at Boehner’s doorstep (other than his votes for the war and unpopular Bush policies). Boehner has worked to address some conservative concerns over the past two years, while keeping a fractious caucus more or less together.
Yet there is very little in Boenher’s recent record that suggests he is someone who can lead Republicans out of the wilderness. (Congressman Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican who made the case for the incumbent minority leader, reminded younger congressmen that Boehner had been part of the “Gang of Seven” that exposed the House banking scandal back in the day.) His legacy includes Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the bailout, and the election defeats of 2006 and 2008. David Freddoso is right when he says, “House Republicans look a lot like the football team that fires all of its assistant coaches and keeps the head coach after two consecutive losing seasons.”
Unfortunately, Lungren offered very little in the way of a contrast with Boehner on policy substance or in what he’d do differently as leader. All he could say is that he wasn’t Boenhner and he was in Congress the last time Republicans got tired of being in the minority and decided to do something about it. Boehner supporters like Hastings were able to counter that argument by pointing out that their man could say that too. And while Boehner’s conservative credentials don’t match Lungren’s from the 1980s, they are pretty close right now.
The only rebuke to the current team in the leadership races so far is that Tom Cole dropped out of the race for another term as National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chairman and the GOP instead elected his challenger, Pete Sessions. But after this election, that was a no-brainer. Massive retirements, bad recruitment, and abysmal fundraising turned what could have been manageable losses into another 2006-style debacle.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: Boehner backed Sessions’ challenge. The orginal version of this post misstated Boehner’s preference in this race. I regret the error.
UPDATE II: I’ve also heard from a few people objecting that Boehner wasn’t the leader when Medicare Part D passed. That’s true. But as I said in my column on the main site before the leadership election, he did vote for it. And he has defended it subsequently. So I do consider it part of his legacy.