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.
That why House Republicans' orderly withdrawal last week from an untenable position was unexpectedly impressive.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his conservative members had claimed their high ground, vowing to block an increase in the federal government's debt ceiling unless Democrats accepted deep cuts in spending.
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, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, fell into line. Tea party firebrands including Michele Bachmann of Minnesota voted no, but they remained uncharacteristically quiet.
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 President Obama to take the country over a fiscal cliff of brutal tax increases and spending cuts — only to retreat in disarray when they noticed that the country wasn't behind them.
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 Congress passes a new spending bill. Both of those events, Republicans say, will let them push for new spending cuts without the hair-raising dangers of a debt-ceiling crisis.
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 Medicare and Social Security. The most popular ways to cut the deficit turn out to be Democratic policies: higher taxes on the wealthy and cuts in military spending.
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 House Budget Committee, to draw up a new federal budget that eliminates the deficit within 10 years through spending cuts alone — no new taxes allowed. Ryan's last such effort would have balanced the budget through cuts in Medicaid, Medicare and other domestic programs over 26 years. Balancing the budget in 10 years will likely require much deeper cuts in those popular programs.
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. Bobby Jindal lectured the Republican National Committee last week. "It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults."
GOP leaders aren't revamping the party's principles — at least, not explicitly. But to improve their chances of winning a majority in the Senate in 2014 and regaining the White House in 2016, they're edging away from the narrow version of tea party Republicanism that brought them down in 2012.
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.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus
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