07/26/2011 10:48 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2011

Follower Failure on Debt Cap

Herding cats is easier.

That's the sole lesson to date from our debt ceiling cliffhanger. The center is less than solid.

Some analysts have wrongly concluded that we have a leadership crisis. If President Obama or Speaker of the House John Boehner, their argument goes, would only threaten to either hold their breath until they turn blue -- or threaten dire physical harm to those who voted wrong -- then the majority would fall into line and resolve the issue.

That's wishful thinking at best. The system hasn't worked that way for years. One need only recall the Clinton years when the White House had to round up votes one at time and couldn't assume any automatic loyalty. The Republican affinity for loyalty and hierarchy was shattered during the Bush years when fiscal conservatives were somehow briefly bamboozled into supporting big spending and big deficits.

But the spending dynamic of the Bush administration was unsustainable for both economic and political reasons. And that doesn't begin to address the concerns of social conservatives who've regularly been abandoned at the altar when their issues were raised.

Some advocates unwisely believe today's anarchy suggests the need for new organizations to supplant the major political parties and are stressing the internet in their creative efforts. Basically, they seem to say, the impact of new legislators who've pledged to never raise taxes should be offset by the election of newcomers who pledge to consistently vote FOR tax increases, or debt ceilings or whatever the dogma of the sponsoring group requires.

In short, they want to replace one group of legislators who've tied their hands to a point where compromise is impossible with another that enters office by putting their voting card on autopilot.

That doesn't strike me as progress. I can understand and respect solons who vote against tax and debt ceiling increases because they (wrongly) believe them to be bad policy. But it is hard to excuse the action of those who know better but fear to break their pledge (a review of the term-limit movement and its pledge might provide helpful context on today's situation).

There's a prevailing and unhelpful American political myth that suggests strong political personalities have consistently intimidated their followers into following the leader. This myth contains a kernel of truth reflected in the behaviors of personalities like Dan Rostenkowski and Lyndon Johnson who realized that the aura of intimidation, however unjustified, made their jobs modestly easier.

The reality, though, is less dramatic and more nuanced. Each spent an inordinate amount of time talking -- and listening -- to those they led and each was wary of moving forward before they were confident a majority was within their reach. They respected the power of precedent and knew that any defeat would make subsequent efforts more difficult while wins begat wins. They were very aware that their leadership positions were based on consent of the governed, that was always subject to change and could never be taken for granted.

That's a logic Boehner probably understands a bit better every day.

Problems arise when followers refuse to fall into line and leaders lose their ability to set the schedule.