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John Boehner is experiencing a difficult tenure as U.S. house speaker. Boehner was re-elected to the post by his Republican colleagues with just 220 votes in 2013, just six more votes than the 214 necessary to be re-elected. Twelve members of Boehner’s party did not vote for him. The conservative Tea Party caucus within the GOP has been at odds with Boehner over his support for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, over the extension of the federal debt limit, and over his support for establishing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Boehner now faces two Tea Party supporters as he seeks re-election to his Ohio Congressional Seat.

However, Boehner is not the first Republican house leader to run into trouble. A thumbnail sketch of some past Republican house speakers and minority leaders shows that most have had defections from within their ranks and had to struggle to maintain power.

Republican House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL 1903-1911) had a tumultuous tenure with significant opposition from inside the Republican Party. Though Cannon was a Republican, he proved to be a legislative impediment to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. At that time, the party was divided between the progressive and conservative bloodlines, which had little in common ideologically. Roosevelt was a progressive who favored expanded federal government action to regulate corporations, to protect consumers and to conserve natural resources. Contrariwise, Cannon was a conservative (at the time called a “standpatter”) who opposed all three of those goals. Cannon excoriated Roosevelt, asserting: “He has no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.” He also said of Roosevelt: “That fellow at the other end of the Avenue wants everything from the birth of Christ to the death of the devil.” Cannon was particularly opposed to Roosevelt’s efforts to conserve lands, declaring: “Not one cent for scenery.”

Cannon was probably the most powerful Speaker in American history because he served concomitantly as speaker and as the chairman of the House Committee on Rules. Proposed legislation would be voted on only with the approval of the omnipotent Cannon. Speaker Cannon worked to keep Progressives off of important committees and made sure his ideological conservative compatriots occupied seats on important committees.

In 1910, disenchanted progressive Republicans joined with Democrats in dislodging Cannon from the Rules Committee. This ended his power to assign members to committees. Cannon lost the speakership later that year after the Democrats won a majority in the Chamber, leaving Cannon as just a rank-and-file member of the body.

The next Republican to take the speaker’s reigns was Frances Gillette of Massachusetts, a conservative in the mold of his fellow Massachusetts resident, President Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, the Progressives challenged the ascendency of the conservative faction. There was an unsuccessful bid by U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson (R-CA) to wrest the Republican nomination from President Coolidge. This was on the heels of a two-day deadlock in which Gillette, using House Majority Leader Nickolas Longworth as his emissary, negotiated a deal with the leader of the Progressive insurrectionists, John M. Nelson (R-WI), affording Progressives the opportunity to offer amendments to the House Rules.

In 1959, House Minority Leader Joe Martin (R-MA), was defeated by insurgent Republican conservative Charles Halleck of Indiana who branded himself “the 100 percent Republican.” Halleck made an issue of the close and friendly relationship between Martin and House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX). Despite their different party affiliations, Martin and Rayburn worked closely together on many pieces of legislation, which would pass with the support of Democrats and Progressive Republicans, much to the chagrin of many conservative Republicans in Martin’s caucus. In fact, when Martin appeared to be in electoral peril in his home district, Democratic luminaries asked Rayburn to campaign against Martin. Rayburn refused to do this, averring: “Speak against Joe, heck If I lived up there I’d vote for him.” Martin suspected that the administration of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was working behind the scenes to orchestrate Halleck’s victory because they thought Martin was too independent.

Halleck himself lost his leadership post in 1965 to an insurrectionist coup, which was more generational than ideological. A group of “Young Turks,” which included future U.S. Secretaries of Defense Melvin Laird (R-WI) and Donald Rumsfeld (R-IL), promoted a challenge to Halleck by a Michigander named Gerald R. Ford. There was a sense in the Republican caucus that the Republican leadership under both Martin and Halleck had grown overly insular. Ford promised that every member of the caucus “will be a first-team player, a 60-minute ball player.”

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) entered Congress as a rebel, challenging the established Congressional hierarchy. Gingrich used “Special Orders” (Where House members address the Chamber afterhours) to rail against the Democratic Congress. In 1987, Gingrich was the lead author with fellow conservatives of a book The House of Ill Repute, lambasting the Democratic House. Gingrich came to Speakership in 1994 promising dramatic change.

However, the party came to distrust Gingrich for compromising with Democratic President Bill Clinton. This led to an aborted coup against Gingrich in 1997. Then in 1998, after Clinton became the first President whose party gained seats in the sixth year of a Presidency since 1822, U.S. Representative Robert Livingston (R-LA) announced a challenge to Gingrich for re-election as Speaker. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Gingrich announced he would not seek to maintain the Speakership. Gingrich also resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress.

Like Cannon, Gillette, Martin, Halleck and Gingrich, Boehner has had a tumultuous tenure as House Republican Leader, with significant dissention from within his own party. However, Boehner’s predicament is different from those of earlier Speakers like Cannon and Gillette in that the threat to his continuing reign does not come from a redoubtable progressive bloodline of the GOP (which bellows for more vigorous action by the Federal Government), but from a formidable band of conservatives who are hard to propitiate.

Furthermore, Boehner does not have the traditional tools that past house speakers have had at their disposal for quieting internecine Republican discord. The Republicans have banned earmarks, so he cannot promise an appropriation for a member of a Congressional District in return for a favorable vote. Most Tea Party members (fiscally conservative) would not likely be enticed by earmarks anyway.

Boehner is one of a litany of Republican house leaders who has had a difficult time trying to unify a fractious party. Looking over the past hundred years or so, one can argue that the job of leading and trying to unify house Republicans might be the hardest job in Washington.

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U.S. House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) had no problem publicly belittling Republican President and friend Gerald R. Ford. He said Ford was “worse than [Warren G.] Harding and [Herbert] Hoover put together.” Yet O’Neill and Ford had a friendly personal relationship. They often golfed together. Ford took O’Neill’s criticisms in stride, knowing that they were not personal, just politics.

Theodore Roosevelt was brilliant at leveling insults, not only directed at his political adversaries, but often directed at his political allies. In 1889, Roosevelt was appointed to serve on the Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison; however, Roosevelt was less than grateful when Harrison failed to support his ideas for Civil Service Reform. Roosevelt blasted the President, calling him “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” Harrison retorted that the young Roosevelt “wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.” In 1898, while serving as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Roosevelt became convinced that President William McKinley was a vacillator. He said of the President, “McKinley had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” Ironically, in 1900 Roosevelt became McKinley’s Vice Presidential Running Mate.

Perhaps Roosevelt’s most profound insult was targeted at Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. He called Wilson “a Byzantine logothete backed by flubdubs and mollycoddles.” (In Layman’s terms, a logothete is an administrator; a flubdud means nonsense; and a mollycoddle means pampered.) Needless to say, Roosevelt’s inimical insults are not often heard on the school playground.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson endorsed Pat Harrison in the Democratic U.S. Senate Primary race against the incumbent Democrat James K. Vardaman (D-Miss.). Wilson was inflamed that Vardaman had voted against the Congressional Declaration of War with Germany. Vardaman did not take Wilson’s endorsement of Harrison lightly. He called Wilson “the coldest blooded, most selfish ruler beneath the stars today.” Hurling invective at Wilson proved a bipartisan affair. Just a year later (in 1919), U.S. Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. (R-Mass.) called Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who he had feuded with over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, “the most sinister figure that ever crossed the country’s path.” After the Treaty failed to garner the requisite two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate, Wilson referred to Lodge and other opponents of the Treaty as “Pygmy minds.”

Harry S. Truman minced few words. He once had great admiration for Dwight D. Eisenhower, and even offered not to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1948 if Eisenhower registered in the Democratic Party and ran for President. Yet when Eisenhower decided to run for President as a Republican in 1952, Truman sang from a different hymnbook. In his down-home Missouri dialect, Truman exclaimed, “The General doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.” When Vice President Richard M. Nixon sought the Presidency in 1960, former President Truman called Nixon “a no good lying bastard,” and told an audience in Texas that anyone who votes for Nixon “ought to go to Hell.” The Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy, was asked about these comments and with great political dexterity quipped, “I’ve asked President Truman to please not bring up the religious issue in this campaign.” When Nixon became President, he made a courtesy call to Truman at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence Missouri. Truman and Nixon got along cordially before the cameras.

The campaign trail is a unique place, especially during the Presidential primaries where candidates of the same political party barnstorm the nation, excoriating each other and approving advertisements castigating their opponent(s); however, once the Primary is over, the loser ceases all criticism and hits the hustings, singing the praises of the winner.

For example, in 1992, Democrat Paul Tsongas called his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, “unprincipled” and “a pander bear.” He approved an advertisement which asserted, “Some people will say anything to be elected President.” Yet when Clinton secured the nomination, Tsongas heaped praise on Clinton, averring, “Bill Clinton is a healer by instinct and that skill will be critical as we come to understand the pulls and tugs of our multi-cultural society.” As for Tsongas’ earlier statement, he said, “It was a campaign. Campaigns are tough. People make tough statements and I did and others did as well.”

In the U.S. House of Representatives, three insults are legendary in their creativeness. The first was in 1899. U.S. House Speaker Thomas Bracket Reed (R-Maine) leveled an insult at his colleagues, observing, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

The second was in 1942, after former Republican Presidential nominee Wendell Willkie compared the Neutrality Act to giving aid to German Chancellor Adolph Hitler. In response, U.S. Representative Dewey Short (R-Mo.) went to the House Floor to alliteratively brand his fellow Republican “a Bellowing — Blatant — Bellicose — Belligerent — Blowhard.”

The most recent grand insult occurred in 2005, when U.S. Representative Marian Berry (D-Ariz.) referred to his redheaded 30-year-old Republican colleague, U.S. Representative Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), as a “Howdy Doody-looking nimrod” during a debate on the Federal budget. Berry was incensed that Putnam and some Republican colleagues attacked the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, claiming they were not true fiscal conservatives.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell was a vociferous opponent of Sandra Day O’Connor, Ronald Reagan’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Falwell thought her views on social issues were too liberal. He urged, “All Good Christians to oppose the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.” In response to Falwell’s statement, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), a Libertarian-oriented conservative who virulently opposed the views of social conservatives like Falwell, quipped, “All Good Christians should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.”

Even family connections do not shield insults in the political sphere. In 1994, Massachusetts State Representative Mark Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was the Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. He ran against Republican Governor William F. Weld. Governor Weld was married to Susan Roosevelt Weld, a cousin of Mark Roosevelt. This family feud was a nasty slugfest. Despite Weld’s commanding lead, Weld ran up the electoral score in part by approving advertisements attacking Roosevelt. Roosevelt, in turn, said of Weld, “He’s indifferent, apathetic, feckless, aloof, passive and lazy. Did I say uncaring? He’s uncaring.” Weld won the race with a record 71 percent of the vote.

It should also be noted that there is a fine line to observe with political insults, and that once that line is crossed, there is often an attendant backlash. For example, political insults can be seen as overly insulting to the point where they can backfire on the insulter. In 1994, Texas Governor Ann Richards, on a campaign stop in Texarkana, Texas, heaped approbation on Debbie Coleman who was the recipient of the city’s Teacher of the Year Award. Richards was inflamed that her Republican opponent, George W. Bush, had argued that the achievement scores for students were manipulated because it is an election year. Richards then asserted, “You just work like a dog, do well, the test scores are up, the kids are looking better, the dropout rate is down. And all of a sudden you’ve got some jerk who’s running for public office [George W. Bush] telling everybody it’s all a sham and it isn’t real and he doesn’t give you credit for doing your job. So far as he is concerned, everything in Texas is terrible.” Richard’s comments backfired and were seen by much of the Texas electorate as petty, malevolent and unnecessary.

The winner of the most creative insult award must go to former U.S. Senator Chuck Robb (D-Va.). In the 1994 Virginia U.S. Senate race, Republican Oliver North, who had been implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Presidential Administration of Ronald Reagan, challenged Robb. Senator Robb brought out the heavy rhetorical artillery, telling an audience in Alexander, VA that his opponent is a “document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, Commander in Chief-bashing, Congress-thrashing, uniform-shaming, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, résumé-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, social security-threatening, public school-denigrating, Swiss-banking-law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, election-losing, snake-oil salesman who can’t tell the difference between the truth and a lie.” The next day Robb won the Senate election.

Politics is a funny business, and certainly not a good career choice for the thin-skinned. If you want to play in this game you’ve got to be prepared for highly insulting remarks not only about the positions you may hold, but about your personal life as well.

Perhaps how a political candidate handles and deals with sharp insults is an important part of the political vetting process.

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Worst Case Scenario for Hillary

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The partial federal government shutdown and debt ceiling controversy spotlight the partisan wrangling in the U.S. Congress. Republicans and Democrats fear working with members of the opposing party on major legislation. They fear electoral reprisals from their party base. Yet there are areas where both sides seem to agree. One of these areas of agreement […]

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