By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON: In the line of succession, House Speaker John Boehner is the third-ranking official in the country. For practical purposes, he has all but disappeared as a leader. That failure is pushing the country toward the financial brink.
Boehner’s collapse as speaker has been sad to watch. Unable to control his own caucus, negotiate effectively with the president or pass legislation, he flounders in office — a likable man who is utterly ineffective. He is the prisoner of the extreme wing of his party, and of his supposed lieutenants, such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who spend their time pandering to the extremists rather than helping Boehner lead.
Boehner’s problem is that he is unable to deliver House Republicans for any pragmatic piece of legislation. He survives from crisis to crisis, thanks to Democratic votes that salvage last-minute compromises. But on major issues that Boehner personally supports, such as immigration reform, he has been powerless.
We are seeing the consequences of a leaderless House in the GOP’s renewed threat of a government shutdown or debt-ceiling default. These reckless actions are part of a grandstand play to reverse the Affordable Care Act, which begins to take effect in October, but they’ve assumed an illogic of their own. The House Republicans seem almost to enjoy holding the country hostage. Their version of Russian Roulette has become so familiar that we forget just how outrageous it is.
Boehner surely knows this course is folly. Legislation to defund Obamacare won’t pass Congress. And the GOP’s brinkmanship, however popular with the right wing, is damaging the party nationally. Boehner last week struggled to find an alternative strategy — to avoid a shutdown by delaying Obamacare a year, or by attaching the defunding plan to the debt-ceiling extension. Both were seriously bad ideas, but even these extreme proposals were rejected by his caucus.
Boehner declared his impotence during a July 21 interview on Face the Nation. Moderator Bob Schieffer asked him to express support for the comprehensive immigration bill he had earlier said he favored. “If I come out and say I’m for this and I’m for that, all I’m doing is making my job harder,” answered Boehner. “This is not about me,” he said several times, as if abdication of control were some kind of virtue.
A dumbfounded Schieffer responded: “That is kind of an interesting take on leadership, though. In other words, you don’t see yourself as someone who has an agenda. You’re there to just sort of manage whatever your people want to do?”
House Republican sources tell me that Cantor has cunningly worked to undermine his nominal boss. By often allying himself with the roughly 40 tea-party extremists who refuse any compromise with Obama, Cantor gives them political oxygen. He encourages their showboating, as on the bill he championed this month to slash the food-stamp program. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, described this bill as “a monumental waste of time.” House committee chairmen ignore Boehner; they know Cantor is the guy with the knife.
This dysfunction isn’t built into the system. It’s a result of human failure. President Obama gets pummeled daily for his weak leadership but compared with Boehner, he’s a titan.
It’s useful to remember a time when House speakers were able to cut deals that put the country’s interests first. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews describes such a moment in his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. It was early 1981, and a newly elected President Ronald Reagan needed the votes of the House Democratic majority to, yes, raise the debt ceiling. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (for whom Matthews worked at the time) agreed — on condition that Reagan send “thank you” letters to all the Democrats who backed his request.
Perhaps O’Neill is an unfair comparison. He had the rare combination of loyal lieutenants and a president who, for all ideological bluster, wanted to govern effectively. But even by comparison with GOP conservatives Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, Boehner has been a disappointment. He doesn’t have Gingrich’s intellectual horsepower or Hastert’s deal-making savvy.
Nancy Pelosi wasn’t a perfect speaker, but she showed that a strong leader can enforce discipline even within a House majority that’s being pulled toward its extreme wing by activists, interest groups and the effects of redistricting. She wielded power, sometimes ruthlessly, to keep her committee chairmen and rank-and-file members in line.
I’d love to celebrate Boehner for finding a way to re-empower the speakership and lead the House GOP. But right now, he’s on track to be the worst speaker in modern American history.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. He can be emailed at email@example.com.