The Boehner rebels didn’t rebel. As Boehner slowly made his way around the lobby and conference room in a bright red sweater, he was greeted warmly. Apparently, almost all House Republicans have personal affection for the speaker, and that includes many of his biggest political critics. In fact, the so-called Boehner rebels (the dozen GOP lawmakers who did not support the speaker’s reelection) did not give Boehner headaches at the retreat. There were no unseemly outbursts or in-session shout fests, just a few mild strategic quarrels.
Boehner rediscovered his mojo. Early on Thursday, Representative Joe Barton of Texas gave an emotional speech about the debt and its effect on his younger family members. He rallied Republicans to get behind conservative reforms, and to back only legislation that is supported by a majority of the conference. Then, as he spoke quickly about the need to get the whole conference behind bills, Barton mistakenly referred to the House GOP as a group of “218.” “The number is 234,” Boehner interrupted. Members cheered the speaker’s gentle retort.
“Rape” is a four-letter word. Pollster Kellyanne Conway drew rave reviews for her upbeat presentation, in which she lectured members about how to appeal to women. Sources say hundreds of House Republicans sat through the talk, hoping to learn more about how to better craft their message to women on economic and social issues. Most pointedly, Conway advised Republicans to tread carefully on language, particularly on sensitive matters such as rape, which she called a “four-letter word” that should be used sparingly, or not at all.
Lower expectations are rampant. Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountain climber who made it to the top of Mount Everest a decade ago, spoke on Wednesday night, and his story gave chills to many House Republicans. But that was a rare moment of encouragement for Republicans to accomplishall of their goals, regardless of the obstacles. Mainly, the sessions underscored the necessity of lower expectations during Obama’s second term. “Suck it up,” Kristol told the crowd when pressed about the limits of Republican power.
Minority outreach is a priority. Greg Walden, who is also chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged the obvious at his press conference: Republicans have done a poor job of reaching out to Hispanics and other minority groups. But he predicted that House Republicans would make improvements in the run-up to the 2014 election. “We just have bad communications in many cases,” Walden said. On Friday, the topic will be explored at length in a morning session featuring Ana Navarro, a Hispanic political strategist.
The leadership team isn’t falling apart. After Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy voted against the Senate’s fiscal-cliff deal, most pundits saw those votes as a break with Boehner, and buzzed about a potential rift in the House GOP ranks. But in Williamsburg, Boehner and Cantor took questions from members together, and projected a united front. McCarthy also worked closely with his fellow leaders. It was all a not-so-subtle signal that the whispers of palace intrigue had been overblown, and that the top three Republicans remain a team.
House Republicans are downbeat. The shadow of the Romney-Ryan ticket’s defeat was as pervasive as the fog coming off the James River. Republicans spent much of the day wondering about what went wrong in the 2012 election, and about how they need to change. Instead of celebrating their coveted majority status, members turned up in droves, notepads in hand, for sessions with titles such as “Turning It Around,” “Sailing above Rough Seas,” and “Using Adversity to Our Advantage by Working Together.” They were hopeful, but not cheery.
— Robert Costa is Washington editor of National Review. Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.