- - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Never pick a fight you don’t intend to win. That’s wisdom from the schoolyard, but it’s the lesson many Republicans never learned. It’s more important than ever when you’re going toe-to-toe with a president and the stakes include a catastrophic health care scheme and funding for the national debt. Unprepared to deal with a man refusing to negotiate, congressional Republicans are eager to give Mr. Obama everything he wants if he’ll just stand clear of the exits.

The Senate’s initial plan was to play the usual Washington game of bait and switch, funding the government and allowing unlimited borrowing in return for a promise of a committee meeting to talk about entitlement and spending reform, with coffee and tea and maybe the Democrats will bring Danish. It’s politics designed to appeal to those who can’t remember 2011, when we went through the same charade. President Obama won a $400 billion increase in the credit limit in return for the creation of a “supercommittee” to come up with $1.5 billion in spending reductions over 10 years. The “supercommittee” failed, as President Obama knew it would, and sequestration was the consolation prize.

The House Republicans wanted to beat the Senate to the punch with their own proposal to fund the government until Dec. 15 and raise the debt limit through Feb. 5 in return for a single concession. Congress and the White House staff would put aside their sweetheart insurance deal and sign up for the Obamacare they prescribed for everyone else. Chief Justice John Roberts, whose vote saved Obamacare in the Supreme Court, would have kept his sweetheart insurance. This would grieve the chief justice because he would feel cheated that he couldn’t share the misery. This was weak stuff indeed, considering the Republican starting position was defunding Obamacare entirely. The Tea Party balked.

Some pollsters portray Republicans as the losers, but maybe not. The midterm elections are a year away, and voters have shown they’re angry with politicians of every stripe. Circumstances constantly change. A new Rasmussen poll finds that 46 percent of those surveyed would give Democrats full control of Congress and 45 percent would give it to Republicans. This is the same even split we’ve seen in the past several elections.

Mr. Obama says he’ll veto any legislation that doesn’t give him everything he wants and nothing he doesn’t. He understands the value of a clear position. Though Americans are angry that Mr. Obama dispatched National Park Service rangers to prevent tourists and veterans from strolling through outdoor monument grounds, he knows the dent in his approval rating, currently hovering at 40 percent or less, can change, too. He’s standing his ground because he understands how the brinksmanship game is played.

Republicans have shifted position so often that they’re no longer coherent. They don’t understand there’s no point in taking a stand for a vague, barely articulated principle. Existing law already requires Congress to participate in Obamacare, but after taking an earful of complaints from senators and congressmen, the White House invented an exception for it. So Republicans are rallying around the law as written. Meanwhile, Obamacare will continue to destroy jobs and send the price of insurance coverage soaring. We’re right back where we started.

Herding politicians is never easy to do, but it has never been more important for Republicans to set aside their individual egos and unify around a message of reducing the size and scope of government, starting with entitlements. Unless they do so, they owe us all an apology for disturbing the peace.