Mr. Speaker, your weakness is showing

On Saturday, None other than House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed relieved by the Senate’s bipartisan compromise on a payroll tax cut. He called it a “good deal” and a “victory,” and took it to his caucus hoping they’d follow his lead.

As is often the case, they didn’t. Rank-and-file Republicans were outraged by the bipartisan agreement in which Democrats made key concessions and the GOP gave up nothing, forcing the Speaker to announce his opposition to a deal he’d endorsed the day before.

Boehner is one of those rare “leaders” who follows the instructions of his followers, rather than the other way around. Or as Dana Milbank explained today, referencing the payroll-break fight, “[T]he old-school speaker is less a leader of his caucus than a servant of his radical backbenchers.”

Three times at a news conference on Friday, Boehner was asked whether he could support a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, as Senate Democrats and Republicans were planning. Three times, Boehner declined to state an objection to the two-month extension (he objected to a different part of the agreement, about an oil pipeline, which the senators subsequently changed to his liking).

“I just gave you an answer. How much clearer can I be?” Boehner said, refusing to take issue with the two-month extension.

And so senators passed the extension, 89 to 10. Tea Party heroes Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio voted for the compromise. The fiercest budget cutter of them all, Sen. Tom Coburn, voted for it. Republican lions such as John Cornyn, Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell voted for it. Only seven Republicans voted “no.”

McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who negotiated the compromise, kept Boehner informed at every step — and was confident enough in Boehner’s acquiescence that his office sent out a notice saying there would be no more legislative business in the Senate until 2 p.m. on Jan. 23. But Boehner’s backbenchers — particularly the Tea Party freshmen — had other ideas, and, in a Saturday teleconference, made clear to Boehner that he would have to abandon the compromise.

The Speaker fielded some questions from Capitol Hill reporters yesterday, and Milbank added, “denied the obvious truth that he had encouraged the compromise before opposing it.” Asked why, Boehner “licked his lips, gave a ‘thanks, everybody’ and disappeared.”

It’s worth appreciating the fact that the Speaker of the House — the office, not this individual — isn’t supposed to be nearly this politically feeble. It’s a very powerful office, historically wielded by dominant, respected politicians.

Boehner, at least on a historical level, appears almost pathetic after one year on the job. Early on, the Speaker told his caucus not to take the debt ceiling hostage, and his members ignored him. In April, his caucus told him his negotiations over a budget agreement weren’t right wing enough, nearly forcing a government shutdown. Over the summer, Boehner wanted a “grand bargain” with President Obama on debt reduction, and his Republican followers rejected it out of hand. Over the weekend, the Speaker supported a bipartisan agreement on extending the payroll tax break, and his members again told him they don’t care what he thinks.

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?