The most under-appreciated political trend of our time may be the loss of power wielded by the Speaker of the House. Through little fault of his own, John Boehner has, essentially, become a feckless herder of cats.
President Obama can unilaterally settle on a position — and then use the bully pulpit to sell it. Boehner, on the other hand, lacks the trappings of the presidency. Instead, he has 200-plus Congressional Republicans he must cajole or intimidate — and he has to do it without the carrots and sticks his predecessors once wielded.
On Sunday, Boehner appeared on Fox News Sunday. He knocked the president for not being serious about making a fiscal-cliff deal, and the Republican's remarks made plenty of sense. But one couldn't help but get the feeling that Boehner was caught in the middle — a sort of emissary between the conservatives in the House and the Democrat in the White House. Being an emissary, of course, is a respectable role — but it is a far cry from being a leader who commands followers to ask "how high" when he says, "jump." These days, being Speaker of the House is sort of like being an auto-worker. You might still be able to find work, but it sure as hell ain't what it used to be.
Has any job deteriorated faster than Speaker of the House? The position was once powerful and revered. Today, it's a mostly thankless job that consists of lots of responsibility, but little power. It's almost like going from being a rodeo cowboy to a rodeo clown — all in the span of a generation.
When we think of great Congressional leaders, we think of powerful politicians like LBJ — the "Master of the Senate — or House Speakers like Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill, and even Newt Gingrich. All of these leaders had much, much more leverage than Boehner.
(Note: Whenever I make this point, someone always uses Nancy Pelosi as a counterargument. While I will gladly concede the woman is tough as nails, the situation Pelosi faced as Speaker is hardly analogous to the challenges that confront Boehner today.)
In the "good old days," Congressional leaders could reward cooperating members with earmarks, plum committee assignments, and re-election money and support. They could punish recalcitrant members by withholding such favors. All of this, of course, happened mostly behind the scenes.
Today, things are different (though not entirely different). Having largely sworn off earmarks, there are fewer bridges and roads to bribe members with. And the emergence of new outside groups like The Club for Growth — that help fund members who stand up to the establishment — have changed the incentive structure.
To be sure, there is still plenty of money to be raised by members sitting on Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce. But for the vast majority of Republican congressmen, the smart play is to stand athwart leadership yelling "stop!"
Meanwhile, this trend coincides with the growing lack of trust in leaders and institutions — and a general lack of respect for leaders — that has been taking place in our society at least since Vietnam.
Americans once belonged to the same church their whole life, worked at the same job for 40 years, and stayed married to the same person till death did they part. Those days are gone. Institutional loyalty has been degraded, and the person leading such an institution no longer has as much sway as he once did.
As a result, being the "boss" no longer really matters. Titles aren't what they used to be. One can't help but think this societal trend is also impacting the way we view political leaders — including the way rank-and-file members view Congressional leaders.
Imagine being the son of a bartender, and working your whole life to achieve a goal — to become Speaker of the House — only to discover that, once achieved, you end up bowing to the very people who are supposed to respect your authority and follow where you lead. (It's almost like dreaming of becoming a columnist, only to discover it just means you get attacked on Twitter.)
As I've written at The Daily Caller, the deck seems to be stacked in Obama's favor. If Boehner cuts a deal, it will almost assuredly include "revenue," thus increasing the odds the conservative base will call him a sellout. (For a man who doesn't want to give up the gavel, this is dangerous.) If Republicans don't cut a deal, they will almost surely be blamed for gridlock.
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argues that Boehner could find a third way by initially putting up a tough fight before finally bowing to the inevitable (as he did when Republicans accepted extending the payroll tax cut). But I'm less certain he can go to that well more than once.
The only card Boehner has to play is to hang a lantern on his problems. Embrace the chaos. Make it his friend — use what Democrats must see as an unpredictable and irrational Republican caucus as a tool to extract a better deal than would normally be possible.
It's probably not fair to him. But one can't help but suspect that Boehner's legacy is on the line right now.