The Republicans’ current position makes things harder still, because Boehner’s party has much more power in Washington than it has support in the nation as a whole. Republicans are a minority party nationally, but thanks to redistricting they control the House despite Democrats’ 2012 successes. This mismatch leaves the base spoiling for fights that can’t actually be won: House Republicans have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will.

Boehner’s job, then, requires constantly pushing hard enough to persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment. Which he’s always found, by hook or by crook: there was no government shutdown in the spring of 2011, no debt default that summer, and the fiscal cliff was averted (at least temporarily) last week.

The fact that all these crises have been resolved at the 11th hour, amid persistent brinkmanship and repeated near-death moments for his speakership, isn’t a sign that he’s a failure. Instead, given the correlation of forces he’s dealing with, this is what success looks like. (For a glimpse of the alternative, just imagine rerunning the last two years with Newt Gingrich in the speaker’s chair.)

You might say that this is no way to run a government. I’d agree. But the nation’s polarization and his party’s dysfunction are beyond a speaker’s ability to undo.