House Republican sources tell me that Cantor has cunningly worked to undermine his nominal boss. By often allying himself with the roughly 40 tea party extremists who refuse any compromise with Obama, Cantor gives them political oxygen. He encourages their showboating, as on the bill he championed this month to slash the food-stamp program. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, described this bill as “a monumental waste of time.” House committee chairmen ignore Boehner; they know Cantor is the guy with the knife.

This dysfunction isn’t built into the system. It’s a result of human failure. President Obama gets pummeled daily for his weak leadership but, compared with Boehner, he’s a titan.

It’s useful to remember a time when House speakers were able to cut deals that put the country’s interests first. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews describes such a moment in his new book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” It was early 1981, and a newly elected President Ronald Reagan needed the votes of the House Democratic majority to, yes, raise the debt ceiling. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (for whom Matthews worked at the time) agreed — on condition that Reagan send “thank you” letters to all the Democrats who backed his request.