Boehner forgets what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), just seven months into first term with the gavel, has had a few ups and downs. Given that he hasn’t approved any meaningful legislation, he’s been pushed around by extremists, and he can’t figure out how to get his caucus to follow his lead, it’s probably fair to say the downs have outnumbered the ups. The man is quite evidently a follower, not a leader.

And while it’s possible Boehner just needs more time to settle into his role, it’s also possible the Speaker doesn’t quite understand just yet what his role is in the American political process.

Norm Ornstein had a terrific item yesterday noting that Boehner fails to appreciate the very nature of his responsibilities. “Boehner is acting like a British parliamentary party leader,” Ornstein explained, “but in a system that cannot long function in divided government with a parliamentary party that reflexively votes no on everything a president or a leader of the other party proposes…. We have perhaps until August 1 for Boehner to act as a real speaker of the whole House.”

Ezra Klein takes this a step further, comparing Boehner’s understanding of the Speaker’s job to that of his immediate predecessor.

When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do. To govern is to compromise. And when you’re in charge, you have to govern.

Lately, Boehner has not been governing. After he failed to pass a conservative resolution to the debt crisis without Democratic votes, he should have begun cutting the deals and making the concessions necessary to gain Democratic votes. That, after all, is what he will ultimately have to do. It’s what all this is supposed to be leading up to.

But Boehner went in the opposite direction. He made his bill more conservative. He indulged his members in the fantasy that they wouldn’t have to make compromises. It’s as if Pelosi, facing criticism for dropping the public option, had tried to shore up her support by bringing a single-payer health-care bill to the floor. Even if that would have pleased her left wing, what good would it have done her? Her job was to prepare her members to take a vote that could lead to a successful outcome.

It’s as if Boehner, desperate and afraid, temporarily forgot not only what he was doing, but why he was doing it. The point, after all, is to work towards a solution that would prevent a disaster the Speaker himself says he’s eager to avoid.

Instead, Boehner has spent at least two weeks tending to the self-esteem of right-wing lawmakers, telling them how great and important they are, and reinforcing their belief that they’ll never have to compromise with anyone on anything.

And today, instead of slowly trying to acclimate his caucus to reality, Boehner will lead them into yet another chest-thumping tantrum.

Boehner, at this point, seems principally concerned with his political survival, no matter the consequences for the rest of us. The nation needs a great Speaker of the House who can lead his chamber out of this mess, but the nation is stuck with a shrinking man who lacks the courage to lead.

The consequences for the country will likely prove to be severe in 87 hours.