If, as expected, the government shutdown is protracted, bleeding into the debt ceiling crisis, the cool eyes of history will judge Speaker of the House John Boehner to be the goat. Not the President, not extremist Republicans in the House, not Ted Cruz or anyone in the Senate. Almost everyone on both sides of the aisle either knows it is John Boehner’s fault or believes in any case that he will be blamed and take the fall.
It is his responsibility because he could have brought a “clean” Continuing Resolution to a vote in the House—and he still can. All indications are that enough Republicans would vote for it—and still would. This would not solve any other crises or disagreements, but all those could then proceed under the simple everyday circumstance of the government running. That would be a good thing by almost all lights.
The reasons John Boehner doesn’t do this are many and complex. He is appropriately loyal to what was, and will hopefully be again, a great political party. The demands on his Speakership are as difficult as any in modern history; it is possibly a job that no one could do perfectly or even well. The extremist Republicans in the House have not so much discovered political extortion—an ancient practice—as fallen in love with it, become obsessed with it. They have aimed their threats at the nation, the President, and reasonable members of their own party in primary after primary.
The extremist threat against John Boehner is not that he will lose his secure Ohio House seat—he won’t—or even that he will lose his Speaker post—he probably will, if they can find anybody else courageous or stupid enough to try to “lead” these House Republicans. The threat hanging over John Boehner, a man who loves his country and his Congress, is that he will be humiliated by failing miserably, rather than just not succeeding.
John Boehner is making a classic mistake, one that competitors in all fields, including sports, business and politics, should know. To win, you have to play aggressively and by the rules, but you have to play to win according to your best inner guidance. Because when you play not to lose, you already have.
Right now, John Boehner knows he isn’t winning, but he could, if he would just end this shutdown. Instead, he has retreated to a haven of rhetoric and finger-pointing that he knows is not right. That’s why every evaluation of his performance, even by some friends and moderate Republicans, begins with “He is a nice guy, a good man, but…”
Right now, whatever the consequences, he could do the right thing, pay whatever price there is to pay, and be a hero. But right now, and in the historian’s rear view mirror, that isn’t how it looks.