byÂ Peter J. Boyer, The New Yorker
John Boehnerâ€™s introduction to the political force that would make him the Speaker of the House of Representatives came on a cool April afternoon in 2009, on the streets of Bakersfield, California. Boehner, the Republican House leader, had come to town for a fund-raiser for his colleague Kevin McCarthy, who represents the area. The event was scheduled for tax day, April 15thâ€”the date targeted for a series of nationwide protest rallies organized by a loosely joined populist movement that called itself the Tea Party. One rally was to take place in Bakersfield, and Boehner and McCarthy decided to make an appearance. â€œThey were expecting a couple of hundred people,â€ Boehner recalls. â€œA couple of thousand showed up.â€
The two congressmen witnessed a scene of the sort that played in an endless loop across the country for the next eighteen months: people in funny hats waving Gadsden flags and wearing T-shirts saying â€œNo taxation with crappy representation,â€ venting about bailouts, taxes, entrenched political Ã©lites, and an expanding and seemingly pampered public sector. (Noticing an open window in a nearby government office building, some in the Bakersfield crowd shouted, â€œShut that window! Youâ€™re wasting my air-conditioning!â€) Although Bakersfield is in one of the most conservative districts in California, the Tea Party speakers assigned fault to Republicans as well as to Democrats. The eventâ€™s organizers had been advised that Boehner and McCarthy would be there but did not invite them to speak.
For Boehner, the Bakersfield rally was a revelation. â€œI could see that there was this rebellion starting to grow,â€ he says now. â€œAnd I didnâ€™t want our members taking a shellacking as a result.â€
Back in Washington, Boehner reported what heâ€™d seen to his Republican colleagues. While many Democrats and the mainstream media mocked the Tea Party, Boehner pressed his members to get out in front of the movement or, at least, get out of its way. â€œI urge you to get in touch with these efforts and connect with them,â€ he told a closed-door meeting of the Republican Conference. â€œThe people participating in these protests will be the soldiers for our cause a year from now.â€
Boehner seemed an unlikely clarion for an anti-establishment revolt. He had been in Congress since 1991, during the Bush-Quayle Administrationâ€”long enough to have twice climbed from the back bench to a leadership position. He was a friend of Ted Kennedyâ€™s, and a champion of George W. Bushâ€™s expansive No Child Left Behind legislation. After the economic collapse of 2008, he had reluctantly advocated for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (â€œa crap sandwich,â€ he called it), the Tea Partiersâ€™ litmus test of political villainy.
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