Ruth Marcus: Boehner is leading from behind

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: October 2, 2013

It's time for the speaker of the House to start leading or leave. With some ingenuity, he might even be able to lead and keep his speakership.

We tend to think of John Boehner as the helpless pawn of an ungovernable caucus, under the thumb of ideologues who prevent the otherwise sane speaker from being the dealmaker he is at heart.

In this view, Boehner has little choice — he must capitulate to the anarchists' demands or lose his speakership.

Two responses:

First, so what? Is the title worth the hassle? Does Boehner want to be remembered as the speaker who led his party — or, more accurately, followed it — over the cliff of shutdown and default?

Boehner has been practicing the tantrum theory of leadership: letting the crazies in his caucus have their meltdown until they've gotten it out of their system and are ready to listen to reason.

In the current situation, you could imagine that having the tantrum over funding the government could be usefully cathartic, clearing the decks for more reasonable behavior over the debt ceiling. Except that Boehner has been ginning up his caucus for a debt ceiling fight, where he believes Republicans will have more leverage with the president (maybe) and suffer less political damage (doubtful).

Perhaps the fallout from a shutdown — among voters and in the market — would be chastening enough to convince Republicans to back away from the far more cataclysmic prospect of leaving the government unable to borrow enough money to cover its debts.

But as every parent eventually discovers, sometimes you have to step in and tell the kids to cut it out. Now. Because if you don't, you will lurch from tantrum to tantrum, forever at the mercy of tiny terrorists. And these tiny terrorists have nuclear weapons in the form of a default on the debt. Which brings me to the second response: Maybe Boehner has more power than he seems to believe. What if Boehner brought his proposed solution for funding the government to the House floor — even if it would require giving up relying on only Republican votes and instead relying on Democrats to help it pass?