Over the last few days, many Republicans have echoed Democrats in asking this basic question: Is the Republican Party in 2015 ready to actually govern? While the mounting evidence seems to point to a resounding "no," maybe this is the wrong question to be asking.
What if, at the end of the day, it's a much simpler problem?
A spotlight has been focused on the much vilified "conservative" House caucus (quote marks around "conservative" because you can't call for government shutdowns and legislation through extortion and be a true conservative). These legislators, formerly known as Tea Partyers and now the very marrow of the GOP in Congress, have won the umbrage of not only Democrats, as expected, but also of other, perhaps more moderate Republicans who have blamed them for gumming up the legislative process in the name of ideological purity, creating one of the most unproductive Congresses since, well, the last Congress.
It's fair to state that thus far, the Republican majority in Congress is as ineffective as the Republican minority was.
Republicans with an intent to govern have focused their ire on this group of politicians, blaming them for chronic dysfunction. I don't think that this conclusion is accurate.
While the job of Speaker of the House is, and has always been, both an exercise in raw power and cat-herding, it's clear that after five years of John Boehner's (R-Ohio) Speakership, there is a different dynamic at play than in the past.
Yes, GOP moderates may take comfort in blaming the radicals, but ultimately the awesome institutional power of the Speakership is practically unassailable. The list of iron-rod-wielding speakers is long. And the will of the Speaker combined with strategic and generous rewards and punishments have kept the unruly House functioning, a full partner with the Senate and the White House in the messy process of ruling a sprawling continental nation and its even more complex global empire.
But just as the Roman Senate fell into chaos because of weak leadership, causing a series of institutional deep wounds and eventual collapse into dictatorship, Boehner's House of Representatives resembles more a broken legislature than one worthy of the world's preeminent power.
As I read history, I'm struck by one dominant quality shared by all successful Speakers: an iron will to rule the House. While we in America shy away from any suggestion that our magistrates and legislators are very powerful, instead hiding their true power behind a rhetorical curtain of "people's representative" and the like, the reality is that our Constitution was written to give the United States a strong government able to overcome the systemic weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the chaos provoked by their diffusion of power in America's first experiment with republicanism.
There are very few figures in the American political system, such as the president and the Speaker of the House, who are endowed with clear, unambiguous and awesome power as to be true national leaders. The Speaker of the House, under both parties, has traditionally been a man or woman who could whip and motivate the troops behind a singular vision of purpose -- a figure who provoked equal parts fear and awe, if not always love.
It's very hard to imagine a successful Reagan presidency without the equally successful tenure of Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.). Would President Reagan have been able to advance his sweeping political program if Speaker O'Neill had permitted his left flank to exercise its collective id against a president who, at least ideologically, they despised? The answer is "no." The Reagan Revolution would have been suffocated if O'Neill had not controlled the ardent left, sublimated their emotions and forced the House to function as a true representative of the national will and interests.
It's impossible to ignore that Boehner is no Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), either. As does Boehner, both of these more recent Speakers had to deal with enormous issues of national importance, highly polarizing presidents and vocal minorities within their own parties that would rather see the president fail than the country succeed.
Imperfectly and always messy, Gingrich and Pelosi nevertheless managed to use their power to simultaneously advance their party's agenda while allowing the government to function, to govern and serve the national interest.
Maybe it's time to face reality. While the right wing of the House GOP clearly has an anti-Obama agenda that overwhelms their pro-America rhetoric in its practice, they have been unusually empowered by a Speaker who capitulates to this caucus's most puerile, un-strategic instincts on an ongoing basis. Boehner has allowed his power to flow away, like water flowing down a mountain, without any resistance.
There is no better insight into Boehner's view of "leadership" than when he revealed his concept of being the man in charge: "If you say, 'Follow me,' and no one does, you're not leading -- you're just taking a walk." This is just a bizarre, anti-leadership philosophy that by definition describes his failure as Speaker.
No great historical leader has succeeded by putting themselves at the mercy of those whom they seek to lead. Rather, by power of mind, raw will and a vision of where to lead, successful leaders make their followers want to fight another battle, cross an ocean or step on the moon.
Leaders are born, not made, so the saying goes. Certainly in any good study of historical heroes, you see this theme repeated over and over. Boehner surely has great qualities as a human being. But as leader, he has only demonstrated a keen capacity to perpetuate himself in his regal office in the Capitol -- at the significant expense of wrecking the House of Representatives and failing America.
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