WASHINGTON Don't feel sorry for John Boehner. His party and his country may be losers in this absurd crisis, but he clearly intends to come out a winner.
It's tempting to sympathize with the House speaker, putative ringmaster of an unruly and at times incoherent Republican majority that delights in thinking the unthinkable. How do you handle someone like Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who actually believes that crashing into the debt ceiling and triggering a default would somehow inspire confidence in the U.S. economy?
Leading the hard-core tea party caucus is in no sense an easy task. But it should at least begin with an honest dose of reality. Instead, Boehner has been feeding his difficult charges a steady diet of fantasy strengthening his position as speaker while bringing the nation to the brink.
Boehner's original plan was to use the debt ceiling as leverage but for what? He's not stupid or crazy, so it's hard for me to believe he really thought he could get President Obama to forsake the Affordable Care Act, his administration's biggest domestic achievement. More likely, he thought he could extort, I mean extract, some major concession on entitlement spending.
But when his caucus insisted on making Obamacare the issue, Boehner went along. When Republicans demanded to rush into battle over the continuing resolution to fund the government, rather than be patient and orchestrate a debt-ceiling fight, Boehner went along. He looked like a general marching hither and yon according to his army's whim.
From the outside, he appears pitifully weak. But Boehner may actually be stronger among conservatives and only a handful of House Republicans would dare call themselves moderate than at any time this year. His grip on the speakership may be tightening, not loosening.
By taking up the Obamacare battle, and by sticking with it long after sane people realized the program would not be defunded or delayed, Boehner displayed a fortitude that conservatives felt he lacked in the fiscal cliff fight last December. If what the House GOP wanted was a Pickett's Charge, Boehner showed that he was willing to lead it.
Boehner may have calculated that Obama would negotiate if not over Obamacare, then about spending and entitlements. The president's uncompromising stance against hostage-taking meant Boehner had to follow through on the threat of a government shutdown and meant that the GOP would shoulder most of the blame for an episode of dysfunction. It also meant, however, that Boehner would get to stand before the cameras every day and show his defiance of Obama, which makes House Republicans swoon.
The longer the crisis goes on, the more Boehner is able to claim battle-forged solidarity with the conservatives who once thought him weak and wobbly. If Boehner wins any concessions at all, he will trumpet them as a great victory. If he gets nothing, he will have led his troops valiantly into battle against all odds. There are romantics in politics who appreciate this sort of theater.
Win or lose, Boehner will have damaged his standing only with the Republican establishment, which, you might have noticed, is not in charge anymore. He will have improved his standing with the conservatives who had been grumbling about his performance as speaker.
The party is taking a pounding in the polls approval of the GOP is down to 28 percent, according to Gallup, a record low but redistricting has made the House majority difficult to dislodge. If the public adopts a pox-on-both-houses attitude, with Democrats taking an approval hit as well, Republicans have a good chance of holding on.
Assuming that Boehner, after a few more twists and turns, ends up letting the House pass a "clean" continuing resolution and debt-ceiling hike, as Obama demands, many in the GOP caucus will be disappointed. Some will be angry. The tea party types may be inconsolable. But all will face the age-old "Ghostbusters" question: Who ya gonna call?
Who's going to be speaker, if not Boehner? Who in his or her right mind would want the job? Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who once positioned himself as a more authentically conservative alternative, has allowed not a speck of daylight between himself and Boehner in this fight. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is off quietly fiddling with numbers. Who else is even considered speaker material?
It looks to me as if Boehner hopes and plans to be around for a long time. This needless brinkmanship may be his way of settling in.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.