Boehner: 'Digging Ourselves Out of a Deep Hole'

House GOP leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, invited me to his “smoke-filled room” in the Capitol thisafternoon.

Offering me a Diet Coke and pulling out a Camel 99 for himself, he spent the nexthalf hour giving me a blunt analysis of his party’s problems and a forceful presentation on howto solve them.

“We’re digging ourselves out of a deep hole,” he admitted. “We took it in the shorts with Bush-Cheney,the Iraq War, and by sacrificing fiscal responsibility to hold power.”

Boehner also acknowledged that the GOP hasn’t done a good enough to job shaking the “party of no” label.

But he believes, with some justification, that President Obama is more popular than his policies, and he outlined a comeback strategy.

MIDDLE CLASS FIRST – That will be the GOP theme going forward. The “American middle class is going to get whacked by Obama’s proposals” on health care, energy and the economy. People who “played by the rules are paying for those who didn’t.” He flatly predicted that his party’s efforts would prevent Obama from getting his summer agenda through the House by the August recess: “There’s no way to move a national energy tax and health care and 12 appropriations bills.”

JUST SAY YES – Boehner knows that his party is obligated to say “how we would solve problems.” And that it must do a much better job of getting that message out. He cited the introduction yesterday of their “American Energy Act,” which would include more incentives to produce nuclear power, and promised health care legislation soon.

OBAMA’S ACHILLES HEEL – Boehner believes it’s national security. “This thing is real,” he said. Watch for more tough votes on Guantanamo, interrogation memos and photos – and a big push on the issue emerging today: the Obama Justice Department admission that some detainees have been read their Miranda rights. “I think most Americans will be appalled that we’re providing Miranda rights to terrorists,” Boehner predicted. “This thing is going to bubble up big.”

RUN EVERYWHERE – Looking ahead to the midterms, Boehner has his eye on the 84 Democrats holding seats where Bush-Cheney won in 2004 and the 49 Democrats holding seats carried by McCain in 2008. While he didn’t repeat Republican House Whip Rep. Eric Cantor’s prediction that the GOP would take back control of the House in 2010, Boehner believes big gains will come. “Our goal is to field 80-100 really good candidates, and we’re 25% of the way there.”

As for 2012, “there’s wide open, and there’s really wide open.” Boehner shrugged off recent polls suggesting that Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh are the voice of the GOP. “They’re not on the ballot and they won’t be on the ballot.”

Who will? Who knows? For now, that’s not Boehner’s problem.

--George Stephanopoulos

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