John Boehner Talks About the GOP's Plight in Congress

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

House minority leader John Boehner

Just four hours after being re-elected House minority leader, John Boehner sat down exclusively with TIME to talk about how he plans ti turn around the Republican Conference after a net loss of 50 House seats over the past two election cycles, who's to blame for the losses and why he's not a caretaker leader.

Hear the extended interview with Representative John Boehner:

TIME: Now that you've been re-elected, how do you claim back the majority?
John Boehner: Well, I think that we've got to show the American people that we're the party of reform. And the party of new ideas. I believe that our party believes in a smaller, more accountable government. And I think that we've got to earn that principle back with the American people.

TIME: What are the key issues and new ideas you want to put forward in the next two years?
Boehner: It's not what I want to do; it's what our conference wants to do, and I expect that I'll lead an effort amongst our members to learn from the results of these last two years, to understand more clearly why we don't do better in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic states, upper Midwest, the West Coast ... We have a lot of learning to do before we begin to stake out those new solutions.

TIME: Obama has said he wants to change the way Washington works. Can you all come together?
Boehner: It's important to see what direction they go. So we'll look forward to his budget submission, which is early February, and we'll look forward to those first moves that we see here in the Congress. Now, if he wants to take this middle path, postpartisanship, more power to him. We'll be there to work with him. But it's not going to just be him — it's going to be, you know, Where's the Democratic Congress going? And what is it they're going to push? It's too early to get way out there and draw lines in the sand ... We're anxious to work with him. And anxious to see just what path they are going to go down.

TIME: Do you think there are more ideologues than pragmatists in the House Republican Conference?
Boehner: If you're looking at my voting record, I have one of the most conservative voting records in the House. But I don't wear it on my sleeve. [Laughs.] I don't shove it in people's face. I don't expect everybody to vote the way I do ... There's a lot of labels that get thrown around, and one of the reasons I don't belong to any of these organizations in our Congress is [that] because when you join one, you get labeled ... We want to be bold, but we want to be bold together. It doesn't work if you've got 20 members that want to be bold and others aren't. The key is rebuilding the team, and it's going to be a lot of work.

TIME: Is 2008 like 1992? Are Republicans looking for the next Newt Gingrich to come along?
Boehner: The only parallels are we've got a Democratic Congress and we've got a Democratic President. Beyond that, I don't think there really are any parallels. We've got a whole different set of concerns in America, a lot of anxiety in America, and we as a political party have to learn to respond to that in a way that makes us an acceptable alternative.

TIME: Some in the National Review and in other places have called you a caretaker in the role of Republican leader. How do you respond to that?
Boehner: Oh, there's been a lot said over the last two weeks. Clearly, we've been through two very difficult cycles. If I thought that I was to blame for what happened over those last two cycles, I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't have run. I think we did our best considering the cards that we were dealt. And I believe that the cards that will be dealt to us over the next two years will be much better.

TIME: So do you have a prediction about gaining back seats, taking back the House?
Boehner: Oh, no, no, no. Let's just take this one day at a time.

TIME: Minority parties have tended to be invisible. How do you promote your agenda?
Boehner: All you have to do is look at what happened over the last two years; we were hardly invisible. I think that we were the most effective minority party at least in the last 100 years in terms of what we were able to accomplish, whether it was in terms of stopping spending, the expansion of government-run health insurance, the big win that we had on lifting the ban on offshore drilling and drilling for oil and gas in the intermountain West. We had some great successes, most of which got overshadowed by the economic crisis five weeks before the election.

TIME: The Blue Dog Democrats are also fiscal conservatives. Have you done any outreach to them on banding together on fiscal issues?
Boehner: America is a center-right country.

TIME: Still?
Boehner: Yes, no question about it. When you look at all the exit polling, Americans don't want bigger government; they don't want higher taxes. And frankly, I think the Congress is still a center-right Congress. And I do think there will still be some opportunities over the next two years to work with some of the more moderate Democrat members when it comes to the issues of spending and taxes.

TIME: In dealing with this economic crisis, do you think that tax cuts should be the Republicans' overarching response?
Boehner: Absolutely. Growing the economy helps everyone. And it's a lot smarter than more money for food stamps or more money for Medicaid for the states, infrastructure projects that are maybe needed or not needed. At the end of the day, the American people and small businesses are able to make better decisions for their future if they're able to keep more of what they earn.

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