The incredible shrinking Speaker

On Thursday, President Obama asked the top eight officials in Congress — four from each party — and Vice President Biden to express a preference about a debt-reduction target. Should the negotiations focus on a more modest series of cuts ($2 trillion), a larger package in line with the Biden-led talks ($3 trillion to $3.5 trillion), or a more ambitious approach (roughly $4 trillion)?

Of the 10 people in the room, eight, including all the Democrats, said they want to go big. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was one of them, “enthusiastically” endorsing the notion of a grand bargain, telling Republican lawmakers that bold action is necessary, and that this is why he wanted to be Speaker in the first place.

Two of the 10 balked. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said there’s no point in trying to strike a grand bargain because rank-and-file Republicans will never accept a compromise on revenue.

As of yesterday, Boehner abandoned his plan and came around to Cantor’s and Kyl’s way of thinking. The Speaker discovered his caucus just wasn’t willing to follow him.

The sweeping deal Obama and Boehner had been discussing would have required both parties to take a bold leap into the political abyss. […]

[Some] Republicans said Boehner had finally realized that he could not sell the tax framework within his party. Many House Republicans, particularly the influential 87-member freshman class, won elections vowing to never raise taxes. At a Thursday meeting at the White House, Cantor said the tax package could not pass the House. And at a Friday morning news conference, every member of Boehner’s leadership team denounced the idea of including tax increases in the debt legislation.

As a substantive matter, the anti-tax extremism that dominates Republican politics is well past the point of being farcical. Given a chance to cut the debt by $4 trillion, GOP leaders who claim to be frantic about a non-existent debt crisis have been exposed as frauds.

But the political issue that stands out for me is realizing just how weak a Speaker Boehner really is.

He started this debt-limit process saying, “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part.” Republicans proceeded to ignore him. This week, Boehner believed he had the power and influence to convince at least most of his caucus to rise to the occasion. Republicans proceeded to ignore this, too. Even the Speaker’s own leadership team didn’t want to follow him, and in the end, it looks like Cantor understood the extremist attitudes of the caucus far better than the Speaker did.

The Speaker of the House is arguably one of the most powerful offices in the government, at least in theory. It’s supposed to be within Boehner’s power to simply tell his caucus what they have a responsibility to do, and demand their fealty.

But a leader with no followers is, by definition, weak. Boehner may be the Speaker, but as he’s quickly realizing, he’s taking the orders, not giving them.

In the asylum known as the House of Representatives, is there any doubt as to the inmates’ power?