The days when Republicans thought they could deliver ransom notes to Barack Obama are gone. Twelve days into a government shutdown and with the clock ticking on a debt default by the world's leading economy, Republicans in Congress are on Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Harried by terrible polling and angry business supporters (including heavyweight donors), they are dumping their baggage as they go. The demand that they would only fund the government and raise the debt ceiling if Mr Obama agreed to defund the Affordable Care Act? Gone. Delaying the mandate that requires the uninsured to sign up for coverage? Out. They are still refusing to re-open government without some concessions, and the game will be to give them a fig leaf, which they can parade as a concession. The self-induced crisis is not yet over. Their offer to extend the nation's borrowing for just six weeks was too short for the White House, and a potential deal could fall apart at any moment. But the reverse direction of their travel is unmistakable.
Republicans are losing the fight not because Mr Obama or his signature piece of legislation have suddenly become popular. While the favourable rating on Obamacare is gradually rising, still only 31% are in favour against 43% who are not. No, they are losing because their own tactics have put everyone's backs up. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll offers a devastating commentary on this. Public approval of Republican tactics is at a new low of 24%. It's not only that Americans dislike a political party shutting down government. Doing so for political reasons, rather than substantive ones, is even worse in their eyes. GOP leaders in Congress have only themselves to blame for this. Attempting to undo a signature piece of legislation after it had come into force allowed Mr Obama to paint them as ideologues impervious to reason, debate or due process.
As the Republicans reverse one position after another, their plight only worsens. As long as they struggle to define what their campaign is about, they are vulnerable to the charge that they are wrecking an economic recovery that is still young and fragile. For a GOP that, despite the Tea Party insurgency, still considers itself to be the natural party of government, that is not a comfortable position to occupy. You can campaign, as the Tea Party has done, on promises never to increase the nation's debt limit, but you cannot simultaneously argue that Mr Obama has been reckless with the nation's finances, while also propelling the most reckless act of all - the day (theoretically next Thursday) when the government will have to delay, or prioritise, the payment of US Treasury bills.
Republicans such as Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, who first hoisted the white flag in columns in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal by dropping the link between the budget and defunding Obamacare, are belatedly waking up to the thought that they have been marching down a blind alley. The Tea Party wunderkind Ted Cruz does not have a plan B. They had all assumed that Mr Obama would buckle, as he did in his first term of office. Wonder of wonders, the president learns from past mistakes.
This swing in fortune has produced some bizarre scenes, such a US president telling Wall Street to be worried, or the chief lobbyist for Republican donors Charles and David Koch denying they had ever supported the defund strategy. Late in the day, Mr Obama has stumbled on a strategy which stops this nonsense. Had he done this at the start of his presidency, he might have got more done. This down-to-the-wire stuff goes against his instincts as a progressive. But negotiating was never going to work with an opposition driven by fundamentalist forces. Concessions were feeding the crocodile: when you run out of chickens to throw it, it takes your arm. Hopefully the day will come when Republicans realise this too, and turn on their Tea Party wreckers.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Leading Article: Retrench warfare: US debt ceiling
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