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Krugman is wrong: Boehner was not a bad speaker

Nancy Pelosi tries to direct Boehner to his right.
Nancy Pelosi tries to direct Boehner to his right.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Today, Paul Krugman described John Boehner as a "terrible, very bad, no good speaker of the House." Krugman is wrong. In fact, he's terribly wrong. For example, as Krugman describes it, Boehner's arguments against further stimulus in 2009 were "know-nothing economics, and incredibly irresponsible at a time of crisis; not long ago it would have been hard to imagine a major political figure making such a statement."

Well, first off, it is important to remember that John Boehner was not the speaker of the House in 2009. He was the minority leader, a position elected entirely by his own caucus. Thus, even if he believed austerity was a bad idea, it's arguably his responsibility to argue for the policy demanded by his caucus (more on that below). Second, I emphasized the final part of the quote in order to juxtapose it with Krugman's own earlier writings to the contrary. This past April, Krugman wrote: "In May 2010, as Britain headed into its last general election, elites all across the western world were gripped by austerity fever, a strange malady that combined extravagant fear with blithe optimism."

It's not about austerity

I agree with Krugman that austerity is probably not the best policy to pursue during an economic crisis, but that's not the point. My point is that Boehner was not a terrible speaker of the House, and it certainly seems possible that Krugman is being lazy in his argument here.

This because all of Krugman's argument is based on a simple ecological fallacy: If the majority party supports something, that does not mean that all members of the party — not even its leader — support it. After all, that's democracy, and Boehner's resignation indicates why it is particularly facile to assume that Boehner is a member of the "Blackmail caucus."

The dilemma: when should a democratic leader follow?

More fundamentally, the dilemma facing Boehner and his successors is a classic one: When should a leader act as a "delegate" and do what he or she is told to do by those he or she represents, even if the leader thinks it is a bad idea? Or, when should a leader act like a "trustee," making unpopular decisions for the good of his or her followers?

I don't know if Boehner truly thought austerity was a good idea, but I strongly believe that opposing the president on fiscal policy does not make him a terrible leader. Remember: Boehner's attempts to work with President Obama were thwarted by his own lieutenants.

Keeping it real: Politics is hard and messy

Finally, as Krugman surely knows, it is naive to believe that logic or evidence will always carry the day in democratic politics. As Winston Churchill famously wrote, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Democratic governance is hard work, with competing goals, visions, and beliefs. Krugman should remember Churchill's quote whenever he is tempted to attack the men and women who actually have to get up every morning to make the doughnuts of democracy.