John Boehner’s lonely job

September 30, 2013

(Chip Somodevilla - GETTY IMAGES)

Everyone's talking about John Boehner's leadership. Or rather, the lack of it.

He's unable to control his own caucus. He needs to be the master of the House. He's "an uncapitalized speaker," one whose words appear to have no weight in his caucus.

But these analyses, however correct they might be, focus on narrower definition of leadership. Yes, it is Boehner's job to get his party in line, and wrangle the radical wing of his party into avoiding what can only be described as recklessly irresponsible: shutting down the U.S. government. His inability to strong-arm the extremists in Congress and to bend their will toward the center may mean Boehner is ineffective, and that he inspires little confidence among the far right flank of his party.

Yet this definition of leadership—the power to convince, persuade and control—is only part of what it means to be a leader. In a much bigger sense, leadership is about focusing on a long-term vision, being willing to sacrifice one's self or one's title, and doing the thing that's best for one's party (and ideally, the country).

And right now, that thing appears to be putting forward a clean up-or-down vote on funding the government, including the Affordable Care Act. No more add-ons and Plan Bs aimed at Obamacare. That seems unlikely to happen, of course. But some reports say that were Boehner to allow such a vote on the Senate's simple funding bill, there may be enough Republicans who would go along that it could pass.

Doing so, of course, would enrage the Tea Party and potentially risk his speakership (though that might be easier to keep than you'd think). And it could very well mean the effective end to the right's long-standing battle against Obamacare. There are few higher stakes than shutting down the government or being willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States, so if Boehner's bluff is called here then he may have played his last hand.

But with polls showing that the GOP would largely be blamed for a shutdown (or worse, a default), the way to save his party might be for Boehner to sacrifice himself. We appear to have passed the point where leading-by-persuasion has a chance. What's needed now is a leader willing to take personal risks for the common good. If indeed Boehner doesn't care about the "big office" but wants to get things done, now's the time.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

What happens when Washington won't negotiate?

Rep. Scott Rigell, the lone House Republican

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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