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The dubious value of a leader who can't lead

John Boehner may hold the gavel, but he's a Speaker In Name Only.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

John Boehner may hold the gavel, but he's a Speaker In Name Only.

[[{"fid":"59856","view_mode":"full","type":"media","attributes":{"height":404,"width":538,"class":"embed-right media-element file-full"}}]]It's fair to say Sean Hannity is as reliable an ally of Republicans as exists in American media. With this in mind, it raised a few eyebrows when Hannity argued last week, "I don't think John Boehner is equipped for the job" of House Speaker.

To be sure, prominent policymakers are going to suffer setbacks and disappointments from time to time, and even stumble into a fiasco or two. But while successful leaders set a direction and get back on track, Boehner's standing seems to be deteriorating. He's been the nation's most powerful Republican official for 33 months, and the Speaker actually seems to be shrinking.

Benjy Sarlin summarized yesterday's debacle:

In an embarrassing defeat, Speaker John Boehner scrapped a bill Tuesday night that would raise the debt ceiling, end the shutdown, and secure minor changes to the Affordable Care Act. The proposal was a last-ditch plan by Boehner to exit the current standoff with some shred of dignity before Senate leaders reached a bipartisan deal with even more modest Obamacare tweaks. But House conservatives, backed by the influential Heritage Foundation, rebelled and refused to support the measure, decrying it as too weak on the president's health care law.

And once the House process imploded, the prospect of Boehner holding onto "some shred of dignity" quickly evaporated. He spent the day trying to sabotage a bipartisan Senate agreement, while searching desperately for something that would make right-wing House members happy. It took 10 hours and multiple failed alternatives, but eventually, the Speaker realized that his members simply would not follow his lead.

In turn, it raised an awkward question: what good is a leader with no followers? Why give someone an office that ostensibly holds great power and influence if he or she is incapable of using it?

If this were a rare defeat for Boehner, he could plausibly argue that he'll recover. But at a certain point, the Speaker starts to look like a coach whose team hasn't won a game in a year and a half, and whose players are inclined to go their own way.

Boehner's defenders will offer a generous defense: he's doing his best under difficult circumstances. It's not his fault House Republicans have become so breathtakingly radical, and when the country really stands on the brink, the Speaker exhausts his alternatives and prevents catastrophic results.

But I'm reminded of this recent item from Jonathan Cohn:

He’s in a difficult position, for sure, but it’s partly one of his own making. Sometimes leadership means telling followers what they can and can’t do. In this case, that should have meant telling Tea Party Republicans they can’t get rid of Obamacare, because it became law, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and validated by a presidential election. Boehner tried to say something along those lines after the election, but conservatives howled and – as usual – he backed down, promising the right they’d get their chance. Now they expect it to happen.

It won’t. And at some point Boehner needs to say so. It will mean taking political risks, but that’s what leaders do.

What's more, the list of failures eventually becomes unsustainable. A Democratic source on Capitol Hill last night sent around a brutal collection of bills Boehner asked his members to support, only to see his own House GOP conference reject his appeals: a grand bargain, a debt-ceiling bill in 2011, a payroll tax extension, a transportation bill, a farm bill, one fiscal-cliff bill, another fiscal-cliff bill, another farm bill, and then yesterday. I think my source might have even missed a couple.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it seems the political mainstream is still coming to terms with a dynamic for which there is no modern precedent: a Speaker of the House with no power, no backbone, and no prospects for success. Boehner isn't just failing in basic tasks, he's failing as Speaker at a historic level.

When Boehner reflects on his tenure, what can he even offer as a defense? He has one shutdown, two debt-ceiling crises, and no accomplishments. Republicans aren't listening to him and Democrats don't see the point in trying to negotiate with him. The Speaker's record has become one, long train-wreck.

History will not be kind.