It might seem impossible now, but House Speaker John Boehner may follow in the footsteps of John McCain and George H.W. Bush, and become the Republican that liberals love after his comments to Fox News suggesting the Tea Party is made up of "knuckle draggers." Now, Boehner was actually defending vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan during his Fox News interview because he voted for the 2008 bank bailout -- the implication being all those Tea Partiers who voted against the bailout are cretins. "I think that he's a practical conservative," Boehner told Greta van Susteren. He's got a very conservative voting record, but he's not a knuckle-dragger, all right? He understood that TARP, while none of us wanted to do it, if we were going to save -- save our economy, save the world economy, it had to happen. I wish we didn't have to do it, either, but he understood that."
The back-handed compliment was heard loud and clear. NBC News' Chuck Todd asked on Twitter, "So if you didn't support TARP, you are a 'knuckle-dragger,' according to Speaker Boehner?" And the implication was picked up by Political Wire's Taegan Goddard, who tweeted, "Wow. House Speaker John Boehner actually called tea party conservatives 'knuckle-draggers.'" Liberals, unsuprisingly, are cheering the idea Daily Kos contributing editor David Waldman responded to Goddard simply with, "Nice!" Liberal blogger Howie Klein approved, too, "Boehner defended Ryan's arm twisting to get Bush's TARP bailout passed by calling Tea Party a bunch of knuckle-draggers." Robbie Sherwood, a reporter-turned-Demoratic political consultant, tweeted, "One gets the feeling John Boehner despises the Tea Party as much as any progressive." And in perhaps the best sign of how widely the remarks reverberated Red State's Erick Erickson called them "unfortunate," adding "Now, I’m sure he doesn’t think of it that way. He’s just talking about TARP opponents — also known as the conservative base of the Republican Party."
But insulting the conservative base of the Republican Party is exactly the way Republicans have ingratiated themselves to liberals. And, frankly, there's been a vacuum for a while now. George H. W. Bush played that role during the later years of his son's administration, because he didn't try to take Baghdad during the first Gulf War. John McCain played the role of "principled pretty all right Republican" in the first George W. Bush term, because he called some religious conservatives "agents of intolerance," was opposed to torture, and just seemed generally hostile to Bush. There was even some talk that John Kerry would choose him as his running mate. But McCain endorsed Bush for reelection and then got more conservative during W.'s second term, especially on immigration, when he was running for reelection in 2010. And after gifting America Sarah Palin in 2008, all love was lost between liberals and McCain.
Without a "reasonable Republican" to lavish with praise, Democrats have occasionally turned the deceased to find a huggable conservative. They tried to recast Ronald Reagan in this role, suggesting he couldn't have won the 2012 Republican primary because he wasn't conservative enough, but let's be real: This is Boehner's chance. He already has a couple things going for him. There are the reports that he really was ready to sign onto a "grand bargain" with President Obama during the debt ceiling fight last year, but he had to back out because of the Tea Party. He called out Michele Bachmann for suggesting Huma Abedin was a Muslim Brotherhood plant inside the State Department. And there's the style issue -- Boehner is a Don Draper-esque guy, with his smoking and tanning, and Mad Men is a show liberals actually like. And the main subplot of Ryan Lizza's recent profile of Paul Ryan for The New Yorker was basically how Ryan, Eric Cantor, and the other "Young Guns" among the House Republicans have spent the last two years trying their best to make Boehner's life miserable so one of them could take his job.
Look, there's already a page on the lefty message board Democratic Underground titled, "Did Boehner just sound reasonable?" Poster Control-Z quotes him saying of a 2011 spending cut proposal: "Listen, I understand some of our members want to do more. But what is it in this bill they disagree with? Nothing. Nothing." Boehner has already laid the groundwork, all he has to do to seize the title is make a slightly off-message comment on a Sunday talk show.