Cullen: Former House Speaker Bill O’Brien plots his return

The New Hampshire Union Leader originally published this column on February 15, 2013:

Exiled leaders spend their days plotting triumphant returns. The archetype here is Napoleon. You remember his story: In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with some 400,000 troops, failed to earn a definitive victory, and made it back to France with 40,000 survivors. He went into exile for less than a year, figured out a way back to power (“Able was I, ere I saw Elba”), and wreaked more havoc at the head of a new army for a hundred days until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.

The defeat of former House Speaker Bill O’Brien’s Republican army last fall was a catastrophe of lesser magnitude but proportional in scale. The GOP lost 120 House seats in the election day bloodbath, 40 percent of its caucus. O’Brien came close to losing his own seat representing New Boston and Mont Vernon. Some thought he would resign rather than be sworn in and serve in a reduced capacity.

Instead, O’Brien took a seat on a backbench and accepted exile in plain sight. And in the tradition of Churchill, Nixon, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Gov. Maggie Hassan, and a host of foreign dictators, he plots his return to political power.

“I think I can clear the field,” O’Brien told a reporter from the National Journal last week, referring to a potential congressional run against freshman Democrat Annie Kuster next year.

One can argue whether such a comment reflects hubris – Napoleon was confident about Russia, too – but there’s no question O’Brien remains a force inside the State House. Backbench O’Brien has maintained a much bigger public profile than Minority Leader Gene Chandler has.

This year O’Brien led fights for gun rights in the capital, for right-to-work, and against the Obamacare-driven expansion of Medicaid. On each of these issues, O’Brien fought on the losing side in terms of the vote count, but in his mind he’s winning important battles in a civil war.

On a recent episode of Goffstown state Rep. John Burt’s cable access show, O’Brien explained one of his top priorities now that he’s freed from the burdens of being speaker. It’s “to make sure that those individuals who have run as Republicans this term vote as Republicans and are identified in upcoming primaries,” O’Brien said.

“Unfortunately there’s too many members of our caucus who aren’t voting in accordance with their commitment to be Republicans, who are concerned about limited government or concerned about personal rights such as the right of self-protection, or concerned about limited taxing, fiscal responsibility, concerned with liberty,” O’Brien continued.

There are traitors among us. The reason right-to-work failed last year is not the scores of Democrats who voted against it, but the handful of Republicans who did so. Consistent with this philosophy, in early January O’Brien used his Facebook page to call out by name six Republican state reps who voted for the State House gun ban. The rule passed with the votes of 190 Democrats, but to O’Brien, it was fellow Republicans who were the problem.

For O’Brien detractors, the issue has rarely been about policy, but style. Small in stature and soft spoken with a grandfather’s demeanor, O’Brien is nonetheless ceaselessly combative, as apt to fight with a Republican as with a Democrat. It was this polarizing approach to politics that led to O’Brien’s descent from the speaker’s rostrum in the first place, and defeat has only made his edge more cutting.

In interviews he talks about “gun free killing zones,” calls Democrats “the party of slavery,” and complains of conspiracies to commit voter fraud on a mass scale. Future Democratic opposition researchers may find that unlike Rep. Kuster, he’s paid his property taxes on time, but there will be plenty of incendiary quotes.

O’Brien’s focus on the enemy within could help O’Brien with primary voters in a bid for higher office next year, but it’s also likely to repel rather than attract the less ideologically rigid establishment Republicans who write the biggest checks to candidates.

One has to think the Democrats would love to run against O’Brien in a general election. O’Brien may be thinking comeback, but they will be thinking Waterloo.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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