“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” -Ronald Reagan

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” – House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)


Historians often distill political careers into pithy quotes. These are emblematic excerpts which exude a politician’s goals, achievements and core values. After all, politicians speak a lot. So it’s important to decant their verbiage into something succinct, representing volumes about who they were and what they did.

The press got a kick out of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) at his weekly news conference on Thursday.

Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo posed a question to Boehner about a dispute between the Obama Administration and Congressional Republicans. The sides are squabbling about whether the GOP can spend less in this year’s annual government funding bills than what was called for in last year’s debt ceiling package.

“Last week, the acting OMB Director sent a letter to Congressional appropriators saying that basically the top line agreed to in the Budget Control Act, that the president would veto it if it’s not met,” stated Beutler.

Boehner never even waited for Beutler’s question.

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” blurted Boehner.

The press corps howled with laughter.

“Is that an official response?” countered Beutler.

“Yes,” answered Boehner.

At first blush, Boehner’s opponents could interpret the rejoinder as cavalier. Even contemptuous, considering his position. A “let them eat cake” moment. But in many respects, this is just Boehner being Boehner. It’s the way he talks. It’s the way he thinks. It’s the way he communicates. Keeping it simple.

There’s no florid language with Boehner. Both FDR and JFK deployed a reflexive structure in their signature bits of oratory: Roosevelt declaring that the only thing Americans had to fear was “fear itself.” Kennedy deployed a similar technique when asking “not what your country can do for you” but “what you can do for your country.” With Reagan, it was a direct, unambiguous demand. An order. A call to action for “Mr. Gorbachev” to “tear down this wall.”

All of the political leaders mentioned here used lucid language. And that’s why it was so memorable.

Boehner’s “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” retort might not define his career. Critics will brush off his answer as insolent and vapid. But it is representative of Boehner’s direct, no-nonsense approach. And it’s just how the Ohio Republican communicates.

For instance, take Boehner’s use of the word “hell.”

Boehner uses “hell” for emphasis.

Such was the case at a May, 2010 press conference, shortly after Democrats approved the health care reform law.

“The American people are deeply concerned about Washington Democrats’ out-of-control spending spree. And quite frankly, it’s just scaring the hell out of them,” Boehner said.

But perhaps Boehner uses “hell” the most when he’s rallying his troops. It’s almost like a rhetorical exclamation point.

Take Boehner as the House prepared to pass the health care reform package in March, 2010.

“Have you read the bill? Have you read the reconciliation bill? Have you read the manager’s amendment? Hell no, you haven’t!” Boehner thundered.

Boehner really stoked the party faithful at a campaign rally in October, 2010, shortly before the midterm elections.

“Your government is disrespecting you, your family, your job, your children. Your government is out of control. Do you have to accept it? Hell no, you don’t!” Boehner wailed.

It’s basic and it’s the way people talk. And Boehner must believe it’s a method that’s served him well because he’s done it for years.

Which is why his “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” comeback may appear disdainful. But in reality, Boehner was really just declaring “balderdash” at assertions that a standoff between House Republicans and the Obama Administration could trigger a government shutdown this fall.

There are few topics in Washington which elicit such attention as the threat of a government shutdown. The legendary impasse between President Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) in 1995-96 forever cemented “government shutdowns” as one of the great narratives inside the beltway.

And here’s what’s driving this storyline:

Last August, the House, Senate and Mr. Obama agreed to the Budget Control Act. It increased the debt limit and set discretionary spending at $1.047 trillion. Boehner and others now argue that number is a cap and they can spend less than that total. Republicans are drafting the spending packages at $1.028 trillion. All of this prompted acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeffrey Zients to write to Congress and warn lawmakers that the president wouldn’t sign appropriations bills if the spending figure was less than $1.047 trillion.

The problem for Boehner is that many Republicans want to spend less than $1.047 trillion, approved in the Budget Control Act (BCA) last year. So $1.028 trillion is the number House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) used when developing his budget blueprint. And when the House Appropriations Committee okayed its spending targets, it went with the lower figure.

“These subcommittee numbers are based on an overall allocation that reneges on our hard fought agreement for discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) in a statement. “Both Republicans and Democrats, hope that we had put the worst of the budget brinkmanship behind us.”

This is what fosters a veto fight with the White House – and prompted a pre-emptive letter from Zients.

Deep down, Boehner knows that chatter about government shutdowns make good copy. But he also knows it’s unlikely to happen. That’s the “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” part. Both sides know it would be catastrophic to force a government shutdown on October 1, just a month before the November election. So Boehner’s working to make sure his side doesn’t do anything to shutter the government. However, a Republican slip-up could result in the “one in three” scenarios Boehner cited earlier where the GOP could lose control of the House.

Boehner has a horde of conservatives who want deeper cuts. So, he’s able to let them revel for a few months with the perception that discretionary spending will be $19 billion beneath the level set in the BCA. However, the Speaker also knows he can’t risk a shutdown. He might be able to forge an agreement with Democrats to whittle away a bit of spending or at least return to the $1.047 trillion number to sidestep a shutdown. Boehner can then go to his conference and merely tell them they can’t face a shutdown because control of the House swings in the balance.

In short, Boehner is declaring “hell no” to the $1.047 trillion figure. That accomplishes his goal of firing up the troops. But the “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” also reveals that chatter about a government shutdown is overblown. Paul Ryan augmented this when he told my colleague Rich Edson that Congress would “probably” okay a stopgap spending plan at $1.047 trillion.

But the time between now and September grants Boehner and the GOP the opportunity to declare “hell no” a lot. This is much like the period last December where the Speaker let conservatives balk for nearly a week over extending the payroll tax cut. Then Boehner shifted course to prevent the tax break from expiring at the end of the year. The Speaker may have to take a similar approach this time around, too.

That’s why blather about a government shutdown is just a lot of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” to Boehner.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Roosevelt.

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” directed Kennedy.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” commanded Reagan.

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” said Boehner.

Four touchstone expressions from four very different politicians. Each communicating differently. Communicating different messages. But communicating, nonetheless.