Posted: Sept. 16, 2006
A MODERATE MISCALCULATION
By Celia Cohen
Deciding to bring in John A. Boehner, the House majority leader, for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle's campaign probably seemed like a good idea several weeks ago, when it was announced.
By the time Boehner arrived Saturday for a fund raiser at the DuPont Country Club in Rockland, it did not look as good.
Here was Castle, preserving his popularity amid Delaware's Democratic-trending electorate by running as a moderate Republican, savoring his recognition by Washingtonian magazine as a leading "bridge-building centrist."
Here was Boehner, delivering one of the more memorably divisive pronouncements of the campaign season earlier this week, when he said, "I listen to my Democrat friends, and I wonder if they're more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people."
Boehner's quotation was not Castle's favorite topic of conversation. Asked about it in a brief interview before the fund raiser, he sidestepped. "I don't agree with everything that everybody says. He didn't even vote for the stem cell bill," Castle said.
The appearance of the conservative Republican leader was as low-key as Castle could keep it -- nothing like the hoopla when John McCain came to Sussex County for him in May, and the two engaged in a mutual admiration society of Republican mavericks with a full-blown press conference and surprise visit to a packed retirement dinner in Seaford for state Rep. Tina Fallon.
Boehner was here and gone, just long enough to register for a reaction from Dennis Spivack, the Democratic congressional candidate, who took issue with the majority leader's earlier comment.
"That was as irresponsible a statement as someone can make. It's such an irresponsible statement that if Mike Castle had the guts and backbone that I will bring to Congress, he would have canceled John Boehner coming in," Spivack said. "It's another indication that while my opponent likes to portray himself as a moderate, how could he ever ally himself with this person?"
Castle certainly did not ally himself with Boehner because he was worried about money. As of last month, according to campaign finance reports, he had $1.4 million on tap, while Spivack had $37,000 in his treasury and was in the hole to himself for $116,000. The fund raiser drew about 100 people and added another $20,000 or so to Castle's account.
What Boehner's presence was supposed to do was show that Castle, as a seven-term congressman who is the president of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, has the clout to have a member of the House leadership want to do him a favor -- or perhaps return one. Castle was one of Boehner's early backers for majority leader when it looked as though Rep. Roy Blunt would win.
"He's coming to Castle. It is direct testimony that Castle is at the center of things," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.
At 56, Boehner -- pronounced BAY-ner -- is an eight-term Ohio congressman who became the majority leader in February after the resignation of Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican with legal troubles at home and ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Before Boehner's elevation, he chaired the House Education & Workforce Committee, where Castle is a subcommittee chair.
Boehner may be the majority leader, but at the DuPont Country Club, he still had to step outside for his notorious chain smoking.
In brief remarks, Castle played up their differences. "He's a little more conservative than I am, some would say a lot more. I've always found John to be a pragmatic individual. He's an exceptional legislator in terms of getting things done," he said.
When Boehner spoke, it became evident that "The Hammer" -- as DeLay was called -- had been replaced by "The Kidder," even if it was one with a stiletto style.
Boehner explained that the benefits of having a father who owned a tavern -- "You grow up around a bar, you get the skills to deal with every jackass that comes through the door" -- helped make him the majority leader.
"I had myself convinced that winning was losing, because what I was winning was a big bucket of manure," Boehner said. "It's something to get elected by your peers. I call it, kidding the kidders."
Castle got the same treatment. "You know him, he's a great guy, a little squishy from time to time. I'm a common-sense conservative from Ohio," Boehner said. "Mike is someone who just rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, well-respected among moderates, kind of respected among conservatives, and then you've got the caveman caucus."
When Boehner got serious, he talked about the president.
"Taking on the terrorists and defeating them is the only option we have. As a Republican, I'm happy that George Bush is our president," he said. "He's always acted in the best interest of the country, regardless of the political consequences."
It was a Republican crowd, and Boehner was delivering Republican applause lines, but these were Mike Castle Republicans. No one applauded.
It must have seemed like the moderate thing to do.