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The Message of 2010

I sensed Democrats were in trouble as soon as the words left his mouth.

It was a cold day this past January. And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) strode to the lectern to deliver perhaps one of the toughest speeches of his career.

"Many people believe that teams are judged by how many games they win," Boehner said. "I would suggest that the best way to judge a team is to look at how they handle losing."

Republicans had been on the ropes for more than two years. They flailed their way through the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. Their numbers on Capitol Hill shrunk to just a fraction of what they had been when they last held the majority. President Obama stomped Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2008 election. And despite an ardent fight from Republicans, Democrats had just muscled the first versions of the controversial health care bill through the House and Senate.

Republicans were on a losing streak. But the loss Boehner spoke of was far more palpable than failing in an election or coming out on the wrong end of a floor vote.

House Republicans had just lost a dear friend and trusted leader.

The speech Boehner gave that day didn't come from a rostrum in the House chamber. And his remarks weren't about a bill or legislative proposal.

The speech was from the pulpit at St. Peter's Catholic Church, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. And Boehner was addressing hundreds of mourners who came to remember Paula Nowakowski, his 46-year-old Chief of Staff who died in her sleep.

Boehner had a message: there are lots of ways to lose. But the Ohio Republican suggested that people can transform losses into positives. Whether it's an election or a legislative fight. Or even the loss of a friend and confidant.

And that's when Boehner threw down the gauntlet to his staff and House Republicans.

"Our team this year is going to dedicate our year to Paula," Boehner said, choking back tears. "You all know how badly she likes to win. And she wants us to win this year."

The message was sent.

Political observers have lots of barometers at their disposal to track the political winds. You can crunch polling data, pour over surveys, evaluate voting habits and study electoral history. But most importantly, you learn to trust your gut.

And when Boehner declared that his team was dedicating 2010 to Paula Nowakowski, my gut told me the GOP had a bona fide chance to reclaim the House this fall.

A Michigan native, Nowakowski was passionate about three things: Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and the Detroit Red Wings. So in solidarity, Boehner's team donned Red Wing lapel pins to honor Nowakowski.

In fact Boehner suggested during a floor speech about Nowakowski that the staff wear the pins for the balance of the year.

The Red Wing pins aren't quite the de rigueur they were around the Capitol last winter. But you'll still spot some Boehner aides wearing the pins on a regular basis, months after Nowakowski's funeral.

On Capitol Hill, the pins became emblematic of Nowakowski's work ethic, dedication to Boehner and Republican principles. And they're still a totem to remind aides and lawmakers of Boehner's goal to dedicate the year to his late chief of staff.

Some ten months later, Boehner stands on the precipice of becoming Speaker of the House.

That's quite a message.

Just before Congress left Washington for Christmas last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called a press conference to tick off the Democrats' legislative achievements for 2009. She cited the health care bill, the climate legislation, the stimulus package and a host of jobs measures.

At the time, MSNBC's Luke Russert asked Pelosi why Democrats weren't benefitting from better poll numbers if they'd accomplished so many good things last year.

"This is the year we've been doing the work," Pelosi said of 2009. "Then comes the year of the message."

Pelosi was right about one thing: 2010 was indeed the year of the message. And voters delivered it loud and clear.

In his final meeting with reporters before the Christmas break, Boehner assailed Pelosi's remark about messaging and minced no words criticizing the Speaker's agenda.

"I hope she does a great job of marketing all of the garbage they passed this year," Boehner snorted.

That didn't happen. And most voters perceived the Democrats' legislative program just as Boehner did.

2010 was indeed a year of messages in Congress. Messages about learning from losses. Messages about getting up from the mat and dusting yourself off. Messages delivered at the ballot box. And messages that came from a church pulpit during the funeral for a late colleague.

Back in January, Republicans got Boehner's message loud and clear about dedicating the year to Paula Nowakowski.

And they made good on it this fall.

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