John Boehner’s favorite line during the election campaign was that he’s not Nancy Pelosi. That was hardly breaking news. What’s meaningful now, with Boehner soon to become House speaker, is that he’s not Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay either.

This matters all the more with Barack Obama in the White House. Obama needs a Republican foil, a villain to portray as the personification of all that’s cruel and uncaring in politics. For several weeks before the election, he targeted Boehner, dwelling on a now-forgotten comment the Republican leader had made. It didn’t work, and Obama moved on in search of other enemies.

But the White House still regards Boehner as potential prey. He’s not as smart as the president and his aides, or so they think. Which means they probably can’t resist going after him again. They’re likely to be disappointed. Boehner has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors.

What exactly has he learned? The overriding lesson from the Gingrich era is that you can’t govern from Capitol Hill. It’s self-destructive even to try. Another danger to be avoided is allowing oneself, as Republican leader, to become the center of attention in Washington. Gingrich did. Boehner won’t.

He understands it’s “not about him,” I’m told by a Boehner ally. He’s not a visionary like Gingrich, but that’s not required of a speaker. Political skill and the ability to get your agenda enacted is. A small ego helps, the smaller, the better.

Boehner sounds disarmingly deferential toward the president. “While our new majority will serve as your voice in the people’s House,” he told supporters on Election Night, “we must remember it’s the president who sets the agenda for our government.” That wasn’t the Gingrich approach.

Nor does Boehner intend to have a list of things that must be accomplished in a specific number of days. The Pledge to America is different from Gingrich’s Contract with America. It’s an expression of Republican principles with two important promises attached. One is to cut $100 billion from discretionary spending in year one, and more later. The other is to have a vote on repeal of Obama-care. And there will be one, followed by votes to kill separate parts of the health care law, including the individual mandate.

When DeLay was de facto leader of House Republicans—Denny Hastert was speaker—he was seduced by the entrenched culture of spending in Congress. He promoted earmarks to aid Republicans in securing their House seats, a tactic that famously failed in 2006. Boehner, in contrast, wants to take advantage of the current, though possibly short-lived, culture of spending cuts. As for earmarks, they’re in their death throes. Boehner opposes them. More revealing is that the two Republicans competing to head the appropriations committee—Jerry Lewis of California and Hal Rogers of Kentucky—are suddenly in the anti-earmarks camp. They’re courting Boehner, who will select the new chairman.

Boehner’s accomplice on spending cuts, Paul Ryan, knows more about the budget than anyone else on Capitol Hill. “Can we cut $100 billion?” he says. “You bet we can. It’s not all that difficult.” If Republicans balk, “let me introduce them to the new freshman class,” Ryan says. Most of the 80-plus new members are spending hawks.

As chairman of the budget committee, Ryan will write the budget next year. That’s not all. The Republican strategy is to approve a series of individual spending cuts in the House and send one a week to the Senate. Should Majority Leader Harry Reid refuse to allow a vote, Republicans intend to use an arcane Senate rule to bring them to the floor, forcing a vote.

Would Republicans do this to embarrass Reid and Democrats? You’re darned right they would. On Election Night, Reid pompously declared Republicans must stop simply opposing Democratic bills and offer alternatives. But Republicans have been proposing alternative policies all along. Reid has ignored them, treating input from Republicans as impudent.

And who knows? The Senate may approve some of those alternatives, spending cuts especially. Eleven Democrats whose seats are up in 2012 come from conservative-leaning states or states that swerved to the right in last week’s election. They may experience a change of heart and start looking favorably on frugality.

The goal of Republicans in all this is modest but realistic. It’s to keep the focus on issues, not personalities, and create a favorable climate for the election of a Republican president in 2012. Their seriousness is reinforced by the fact that Boehner isn’t jockeying to be a presidential candidate himself.

Boehner may begin to appear more presidential than Obama. Since the president has alienated the business and entrepreneurial class, he’s unable to provide the sense of certainty about an economy free of tax increases and what Boehner calls “job-killing” legislation and regulations. But when Boehner vows there will be no energy tax, no card check, no cap and trade global warming bill, and a relentless effort to dismantle Obamacare, the new speaker will have credibility.

Soon Republicans will confront a problem that’s off their radar at the moment. Their drive to prevent tax hikes, pare spending, reduce the deficit, and block bureaucrats from issuing health care and financial industry regulations is bound to have a salutary effect on the economy. Obama will claim credit, and no doubt the media will go along.

The president is too ideologically rigid to take these steps himself. But that doesn’t matter. We’ve seen this movie before. In 1996, President Clinton twice vetoed a Republican welfare reform bill. Bob Dole, then the Republican presidential nominee, was poised to exploit the welfare issue against Clinton. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott insisted on giving Clinton a third crack at the bill. He signed it. And Dole’s presidential chances died.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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