If you wonder why negotiating a fiscal cliff deal was such a near-death experience, you need read no further than this piece on “The Education of John Boehner” in today’s Wall Street Journal. Here is the lead:

What stunned House Speaker John Boehner more than anything else during his prolonged closed-door budget negotiations with Barack Obama was this revelation: "At one point several weeks ago," Mr. Boehner says, "the president said to me, 'We don't have a spending problem.' "

In the interview (with the Journal’s Stephen Moore), Boehner goes on to say of the president's understanding of debt and economics:

The president's insistence that Washington doesn't have a spending problem, Mr. Boehner says, is predicated on the belief that massive federal deficits stem from what Mr. Obama called "a health-care problem." Mr. Boehner says that after he recovered from his astonishment—"They blame all of the fiscal woes on our health-care system"—he replied: "Clearly we have a health-care problem, which is about to get worse with ObamaCare. But, Mr. President, we have a very serious spending problem." He repeated this message so often, he says, that toward the end of the negotiations, the president became irritated and said: "I'm getting tired of hearing you say that."

Let this sink in: The president of the United States doesn’t think we have a spending problem. This is what the Republicans on Capitol Hill are up against in trying to make deals with this president.

The GOP faces an incredibly difficult road forward, made even more perilous by two factors: the president simply refuses to negotiate and he has the power to veto anything that has been negotiated by others. Boehner was rightly dismayed that the GOP was portrayed as dogmatic and intransigent in the press, when it was the president who wouldn’t make concessions. Boehner explains:

Why has the president been such an immovable force when it comes to cutting spending? "Two reasons," Mr. Boehner says. "He's so ideological himself, and he's unwilling to take on the left wing of his own party." That reluctance explains why Mr. Obama originally agreed with the Boehner proposal to raise the retirement age for Medicare, the speaker says, but then "pulled back. He admitted in meetings that he couldn't sell things to his own members. But he didn't even want to try."

Boehner was asked in the interview what he wishes he had done differently:

"What I should have done the day after the election was to come out and say: The House has done its work. The House passed a bill that replaced the sequester with real spending cuts. The House passed a plan extending all of the current tax rates. We passed a budget. We call upon the Senate to do their work."

No, Mr. Boehner. That is not what you need to say. This is insufficient. This is Hillspeak. You need to tell the public what you just told Stephen Moore. You need to tell the public that we have re-elected a president who doesn’t think we are spending too much money. The public needs to know who is intransigent. They also need to know that the most powerful political figure in the country is economically illiterate and ideologically driven.

The debt ceiling negotiations are going to be just as harrowing as the fiscal cliff negotiations. John Boehner has to frame the issues better. He is up against the master. Here is what President Obama said of the coming debt ceiling crisis:

“I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed,” Obama said. “Let me repeat: We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred. If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic — far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff.”

Mr. Boehner, you’ve got to respond to this. You’ve got to say it is Mr. Obama who is racking up debts we can’t pay and then lecturing other people. You’ve got to point out how unprecedented it is in American history for a president to say he will “not have another debate with Congress.” The issue at hand, according to the way power was divided by the Constitution, is something Congress has the right to decide. Do you realize how outrageous it would be for the president to bypass Congress on the debt limit?

Whatever you think about John Boehner’s leadership, you have to admit this is a terrible predicament. Ross Douthat’s column yesterday, “Boehner, American Hero,” credits the Speaker with a kind of disaster management that has prevented our dysfunctional government from “tipping into outright crisis.”