A well-organized retreat is said to be one of the most difficult military maneuvers: You're under enemy fire, your troops are likely to be demoralized, and you've got to avoid a rout.
But as warnings mounted that a crisis over the debt ceiling could tank the economy and that the GOP would reap most of the blame, Boehner understood he couldn't hold that hill.
"While we want to stand up and fight for more fiscal responsibility … we're going to be doing it in an environment that is far more hostile," he warned House members. "Where's the ground we fight on? Where's the ground that we retreat on? Where are the smart fights? Where are the dumb fights that we have to stay away from?"
Astonishingly, for perhaps the first time since they won the majority in 2010, Boehner's House Republicans were seized by a sudden fit of pragmatism. That debt ceiling that couldn't be lifted as a matter of sacred principle? It was "suspended" until May with only perfunctory debate.
Boehner's sometimes fractious lieutenants,
Score one for Boehner.
It may seem painfully obvious that a political party needs to seek favorable ground on which to wage its battles — to choose "smart fights" and avoid dumb ones.
But until last week, Democrats could pretty much count on House Republicans to ignore that rule. Only three weeks ago, the same Republicans had dared
The logic of Boehner's gambit last week was straightforward: A debt ceiling showdown looked like another dumb fight. The speaker wants to change the subject to federal spending, an issue on which conservatives think they have more public support. On March 1, deep automatic cuts in both domestic and military spending are scheduled to take effect. And on March 27, the federal government will have to shut down unless
They're at least partly right. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that, with the economy slowly recovering, more voters want Congress to do something about the deficit. In 2009, only 53% of Americans said the deficit should be a top priority; now 72% do, a big jump.
But here's the problem for the GOP: Polls also show that when voters are presented specific options for shrinking the deficit, they recoil from domestic spending cuts, especially in
And as the price for tea party support, Boehner promised conservatives a gift he may come to rue. He directed Ryan, the chairman of the
Still, give Boehner credit. He and his House Republicans are much better off than they were two weeks ago, lurching from crisis to self-defeating crisis.
Congress may still be less popular than cockroaches — but unlike cockroaches, Republican politicians appear to be evolving rapidly.
"We must stop being the stupid party," Louisiana Gov.
GOP leaders aren't revamping the party's principles — at least, not explicitly. But to improve their chances of winning a majority in the
Obama and the Democrats still have better battlefield conditions: a growing economy, a unified party, demographic trends that fall in their favor.
But they're already facing a smarter Republican Party than the one they defeated in November — a GOP smart enough to stage a tactical retreat and avoid a losing fight.