Doyle McManus: GOP was smart to retreat on debt-ceiling fight

01/29/2013 8:05 AM

01/29/2013 8:05 AM

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 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.

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, Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fell into line. Tea party firebrands including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., 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. Less than a month 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 percent of Americans said the deficit should be a top priority. Now 72 percent 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.

Also, Obama and the Democrats still have better battlefield conditions: a growing economy, a unified party, demographic trends that fall in their favor.

But Democrats are 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.

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