The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published
this column on June 8, 2012:
“I get up every morning to confound my enemies,” Richard Nixon told his daughter. Nixon relished political fights. He understood that being hated by the right people can be a sign of effectiveness. Unlike most politicians, Nixon did not need to be loved.
New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien might relate. If O’Brien wants to confound his enemies, he should declare victory, go home to Mont Vernon — and not file for reelection to the House this week. His opponents would feel cheated. They won’t have O’Brien to kick around anymore.
O’Brien’s speakership has been remarkably successful in terms of policy outcomes. What some call heavy-handedness others would describe as knowing how to wield power. The speaker can argue that his Republican majority was elected with a mandate to stop the runaway spending and tax increases that characterized Gov. John Lynch’s first three terms. They kept that promise.
Policy success — but a public relations mess. Voters are excused if they missed the story about how a fiscally conservative Legislature got spending under control amid all the coverage of secondary issues, intra-party ideological warfare, and pitched battles over social issues that ended in defeats. The whole session was off message.
Critics stay silent so long as the sausage keeps getting made. Speakers operate with the illusion of power, but really their only power is the power to persuade. The unnecessarily polarized and drawn-out debate over right-to-work legislation — a fight O’Brien lost — exposed how little control the speaker had over his own supermajority. Since that defeat, the inmates ran the asylum.
The end of the legislative session was a pile-up worthy of a “Chips” TV episode. Lowlights include a Nazi salute; the resignations of O’Brien’s former Chief of Staff Bob Mead and Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt; and the tragic defeat of the education funding constitutional amendment.
Most political careers end badly. Few exit office on their own terms or at the height of their reputation. The political lifespan of a Speaker of the House is especially nasty, brutish and short. Two, maybe three terms tops.
When a congressman becomes well known nationally and not just within his or her district or state, it is usually not for something positive. No one had ever heard of Gary Condit, Mark Foley, or Anthony Weiner before they became instantly infamous.
Speakers are especially vulnerable to reputation assassination. They go from being known only to political junkies to being in the news every day, and their negative ratings skyrocket as they become the focal point of partisan attacks. It has become part of the price of leadership.
The same pattern holds for New Hampshire legislators. Most are barely known even within their districts, but according to an April Granite State Poll conducted for WMUR by the University of New Hampshire, nearly half of New Hampshire voters are familiar with O’Brien. Of those, twice as many have a negative impression of O’Brien (27 percent) as have a positive one (15 percent).
O’Brien’s path back to the Speaker’s rostrum for another term is already far more difficult than those of past speakers. O’Brien’s Mont Vernon area district is a much less safe seat than was, say, Democrat Terie Norelli’s Portsmouth or Republican Donna Sytek’s Salem. Not only could O’Brien’s own seat be among the dozens expected to flip back to the Democrats as the 2010 wave recedes, but even if he wins locally he could be vulnerable in a leadership fight within a smaller GOP caucus of to-be-determined ideology.
But the real problem is that O’Brien’s political challenges are no longer confined to Mont Vernon and Concord. It’s that O’Brien’s speakership has crossed a threshold to become a statewide issue unto itself. The Democrats have cleaned Home Depot out of rope to tie every Republican running for office this year to O’Brien and the fringe elements of his caucus who appeared to control the House’s agenda. Every candidate running for state rep will be asked, “Are you for or against reelecting Bill O’Brien as speaker?”
There is an honorable way for O’Brien to deprive the Democrats of one of their best issues — him — while gaining the satisfaction of confounding his enemies one last time. He can retire.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.