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Republican Boehner poised to become America's most powerful politician

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks during a news conference September 29, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House Republicans held the news conference to discuss their agenda as Congress heads to recess before the mid-term elections.

Alex Wong/Getty Images/Alex Wong/Getty Images

Americans are about to hand the reins of Congress, with an apparent mandate to stymie Barack Obama's every move, to someone most of them have never heard of.

The likely ascension of Ohio Republican John Boehner to the Speaker's post in the House of Representatives could be the single most important consequence of next week's midterm congressional election.

It will be up to Mr. Boehner - currently the Minority Leader and expected pick for Speaker if, as anticipated, the Republicans take control of the House - to unite the GOP's old guard and Tea Party newbies behind an agenda that helps, rather than hurts, the party's 2012 White House nominee.

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The job will involve both constructive dialogue and confrontation with the Oval Office's current occupant, although no one - likely not even Mr. Boehner himself - knows for sure which approach will dominate the relationship.

The last time a Republican Speaker confronted a Democratic president - when Newt Gingrich took on Bill Clinton in 1994 - the GOP came out on the losing end. For now, though, Mr. Boehner is at least talking Tea Party tough.

"Republicans will not compromise on the will of the people," he said in a recent post on his Facebook page. "We will uphold our pledge to focus on cutting spending & stopping the tax hikes, bailouts & takeovers. … We will work to repeal ObamaCare & start over."

Not long ago, Democrats delighted in skewering the Republican leader. They thought they had found in Mr. Boehner, a fastidious dresser, golf enthusiast and heavy smoker, a useful campaign foil epitomizing the GOP's cozy relationship with lobbyists and corporate donors.

Mr. Obama joked about him as "a person of colour" for his orangey hue resembling an artificial tan, although Mr. Boehner, 60, has insisted his deep skin tone is all natural. The President began the post-Labour Day campaign with a speech that attacked Mr. Boehner 10 times.

None of it stuck in the public's imagination, likely because most Americans had no idea who the President was talking about. They appear no better informed at the end of the campaign than at the beginning. A Politico/George Washington University poll released this week found that 54 per cent of likely voters have never heard of Mr. Boehner.

By contrast, current Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unknown to only 8 per cent of likely voters. And most of those who know who she is don't like her. Ms. Pelosi's unfavourability rating stands at 56 per cent, making her the most unpopular practising politician in the country.

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Mr. Boehner's unfavourability rating is a mere 15 per cent. That would give him a virtually clean slate as a new Speaker. He's unlikely to want to blow it.

"He's a very conventional Republican. You don't get the impression he's one of these people who froth at the mouth," Ohio State University political science professor Randall Ripley said in an interview. "He's not been an invisible guy. But I don't get a strong sense of persona from him."

That may be an advantage. In her four years as Speaker, the iron-fisted Ms. Pelosi has emerged as a polarizing figure, steering her caucus and the House agenda much further to the left than many of its members would like. It has made her, along with Mr. Obama, the leading target of Republican House candidates in this campaign, not to mention an albatross for incumbent Democrats in conservative-leaning districts.

In his day, Mr. Gingrich became a lightning rod, too, and a symbol of Republican obstructionism. His own caucus eventually revolted and Mr. Gingrich was forced to step down as Speaker after the 1998 midterms.

Mr. Boehner's style may settle somewhere between that of Mr. Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, the self-effacing Illinois congressman who became the GOP's longest-serving Speaker between 1998 and 2006. Most of his tenure unfolded, however, under a Republican president.

A hint of future sparks between the White House and Mr. Boehner came in March during the final debate in the House on health-care reform. Mr. Boehner became unhinged, delivering his most memorable line yet. "Hell no, you can't," was a play on Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign slogan.

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But that moment belied what is, by all accounts, Mr. Boehner's even-keeled nature. The second-oldest of 12 children born to a small-town Ohio tavern owner, he grew up both experiencing and enforcing discipline. He worked his way through night school and became well off as the owner of a plastics manufacturing firm. His ascension to an upper-income tax bracket was the catalyst for his conversion from Kennedy Democrat to Reagan Republican.

After arriving in Congress in 1991, he hitched his wagon to Mr. Gingrich and paid the price when the controversial Speaker fell on his sword. He returned to the GOP leadership in 2006, after House majority leader Tom Delay resigned in the midst of money laundering and lobbying scandals.

Mr. Boehner's biggest challenge may not be managing a rowdy caucus, although it will certainly test his leadership skills. Rather, maintaining an appearance of propriety will be difficult as Democrats fixate on his links to lobbyists and corporate America.

"I'm sorry, I am the business community," Mr. Boehner unabashedly told CNN last month as House Republicans released their Pledge to America campaign platform of spending and tax cuts. "That's what drove me here, to fight for a government that allows the American people in the private sector to be the engine of opportunity for all Americans."

It is not impossible that Mr. Boehner could face a challenge from within the GOP soon after the election. He is hardly a Tea Party favourite, although he apparently instructed colleagues "to get on the right side of these people."

The Wall Street Journal, which prefers more ideological purity in its Republicans, last month wondered whether Mr. Boehner is "ready for prime time," after he expressed openness to compromise with Democrats on an extension of Bush era tax cuts for the middle-class.

But, for now, it appears Mr. Boehner is about to become the most powerful politician about whom Americans have yet to form an opinion.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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