Someone needs to ask House Speaker John Boehner how bad he wants to keep his job. Is holding on to it so important that he won't buck an extreme faction of Republican conservatives to promote the greater good and prevent the nation from defaulting on its debts? If he doesn't lead, he could become among the most irresponsible men ever elected to high public office.
In the old days, those who occupied the chair third in the presidential succession line at least made an effort to lead. They understood that a decision not always popular among their own rank and file might cost them their job, but they were willing to take the risk.
Strong speakers like Sam Rayburn and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neil possessed brilliant manipulative skills and kept a firm hold on their troops while demanding the respect that goes with the post. Faced with the potential earthquake demanded by today's conservative radicals, they certainly would have responded emphatically for the nation.
The government shutdown has stretched into its second week. But the real crises will come Oct. 17, when the debt ceiling needs to be raised to avoid government default -- which, most experts agree, could trigger a worldwide economic catastrophe.
Boehner said earlier in this scuffle that he would cobble together a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to avoid this cataclysmic event. On Sunday, however, he said he told President Obama that there was no way the House could pass a "clean" bill upping the debt ceiling. He demanded negotiations. This came despite a warning from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that Congress was playing with fire.
Boehner needs the political courage to stand up to the congressional crazies in his party and say, in no uncertain terms: What is right is right, and let whatever happens to me in the aftermath happen.
At the same time, Obama -- who won a second term because he talked a good game and promised to lead -- should practice what he pledged. Lord knows he has had enough time to perfect the art. Sitting around refusing to negotiate or running around making speeches or diving into the controversy over whether to change the Washington Redskins' name is hardly productive.
Leaders take charge. As he has done in the past, Obama should call Boehner in; the two can lock themselves in a room and slug it out -- figuratively or not.
There are always ways around these impasses, and it is imperative they find one.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan spoke recently with James Baker III, a former star of Republican administrations under Reagan and the elder Bush, about the challenges of starkly divided government. Baker said when then-President Ronald Reagan was dealing with fierce Democratic opposition in Congress, the chief executive managed to maintain his strong image by taking what he could get and putting national interest first. According to Baker, Reagan wasn't a conservative ideologue. He was a pragmatist. "Reagan would say, 'I'd rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying,' " Baker told Noonan.
A Republican I know well got so angry the other day at both sides' intransigence that he wrote both his senators (one Republican, one Democrat), the House Republican leader and his own congressman (also a Republican), inquiring why they were still in office when they obviously didn't want to represent the national good -- only the narrow interests necessary for political survival or ideological purity. He'd warned his elected representatives not to send a response written by some young underling "who has not been laid off like millions of others because of your extremism." It was the first time this Republican had ever written a politician.
Preserving a position at any cost can lead to a disastrous breach of responsibilities, a betrayal of public trust not only by those who demand that the lawmaker follow their narrow prescription but by the lawmaker for doing so. Both antagonists in this ridiculous squabble should remember that.
Lead or get out of the way.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.