McManus: The GOP's tactical retreat

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.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • The real reason for Washington's derivatives gift to banks
    The real reason for Washington's derivatives gift to banks

    As we embark on the seventh year since the historic collapse of the Lehman Bros. investment bank, it's clear we haven't fixed what broke the economy in 2008. Big banks still control Congress. Workers remain acutely vulnerable to another financial crisis. But we can't blame only Wall Street...

  • Continue -- but gradually reduce -- federal risk in terrorism insurance
    Continue -- but gradually reduce -- federal risk in terrorism insurance

    The terrorists who turned the World Trade Center into rubble struck a devastating blow to the U.S. economy too, and few sectors felt it as acutely as the insurance industry. Afterward, insurers balked at providing any coverage for damage caused by further acts of terrorism, making it harder...

  • A tax system tilted toward the rich
    A tax system tilted toward the rich

    Congress managed to pass a tax bill in December — a great relief to tax professionals like myself. But what our legislators didn't do was address the fundamentally unfair way the United States taxes people who work for a living compared with people who live off of the earnings of their...

  • In spending-bill battle, Obama and banks prevail over Pelosi, Warren
    In spending-bill battle, Obama and banks prevail over Pelosi, Warren

    So much for the new populism.

  • Obama's myRA accounts come up short for savers
    Obama's myRA accounts come up short for savers

    President Obama's legacy will probably not include retirement savings accounts, but he did point the way to a promising option this year: a government-sponsored account, aimed at the millions of workers without access to an employer plan. As with so much else in his presidency, it's an...

  • That ugly spending bill? That's what compromise looks like
    That ugly spending bill? That's what compromise looks like

    The trillion-dollar spending bill that the House of Representatives passed last week had something for everyone to hate. But it was still a step, however awkward, toward making the United States governable again.

  • Empty threats vs. real immigration reform
    Empty threats vs. real immigration reform

    House Republicans once again find themselves choosing whether to govern or to make a point. Last year they embarked on a destined-to-fail effort to "defund Obamacare," leading to a 16-day government shutdown. Now, some Republicans want to "defund amnesty," a reference to President Obama's...

  • The new Rand Paul vs. the old Rand Paul
    The new Rand Paul vs. the old Rand Paul

    Rand Paul, the heretofore libertarian senator from Kentucky, gave a foreign policy speech to Republican grandees in New York last week with a clear message: I'm not an isolationist like my dad.

Comments
Loading