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John Boehner’s unenviable job

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If there’s one job in Washington no one wants right now, it’s John Boehner’s.

The Speaker of the House finds himself in the undesirable position of trying to lead a divided Republican party, still stinging from recent election losses and yet filled with rebellious freshmen who arrived in Washington just two years ago.

But he appears to be succeeding, at least in one sense: Two reports in recent days show that, for now, Republicans in the House are closing ranks behind Boehner—or at least offering up quiet support. Boehner seems to have “remarkable leeway to negotiate a deal,” the Post’s Rosalind Helderman reports. And through myriad tactics that include denying some freshmen spots on committees, offering others more responsibility, and making amends with conservative leaders like Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R.-Va.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.), he appears to be congealing a wobbly consensus.

Pulling that together is the hard job of leadership. It is one thing to stand up adamantly to opponents, refusing to budge on an issue in a show of steadfast principle. Some call that leadership, but it’s also arrogant obfuscation. It’s easy to lead when momentum appears to be on your side (as it was for House Republicans following the 2010 midterms), when you’re flush with a new crop of energetic followers and when everyone seems to be on the same page.

But it’s quite another to have to mete out rewards or punishment when things aren’t going well for your team. Holding the lesser hand tends to bring people together, of course, but it also forces leaders to do the hard work of using carrots and sticks, doling out plum assignments to satisfy unruly team members and knowing what will motivate their most skeptical followers to fall in line.

Until a deal is ready for a vote, it’s hard to know how far Boehner’s leadership of his party will really be tested. A solution still appears far out of reach following new proposals issued by both sides, and Boehner’s performance is not, a new poll shows, being viewed well among registered voters. But for now, the fact that he has some level of broader backing from the fractious ranks of his party is a temporary achievement. The hardest job—keeping it—is still to come.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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