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Column: GOP makes tactical retreat on debt ceiling


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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’s 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 Barack 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.

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.

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 is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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