Cynthia Allen - GOP needs to keep its eye on November

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If you blinked, you might have missed seeing Congress pass and the president sign a bill increasing the federal debt ceiling.

That was intentional.

In recent years, debates over this now-routine procedure rage, then simmer for weeks in one house or the other, attracting all sorts of media attention or the ire and praise of interest groups, before reaching a fever pitch and ending with a disappointing 11th-hour compromise -- or equally likely, a total capitulation by the side occupying the weakest ground.

Case in point: The abject failure of October's partial government shut-down catalyzed by an argument over the continuing budget resolution.

This time, in uncharacteristically quiet fashion, the government's borrowing authority was raised without strings and almost without notice.

The national media, who hunger for political controversy like tabloids hunger for pictures of the royal family, barely paused to look.

Instead, reporters kept their steely focus right where the GOP wants it: On the president's second-term agenda, his sinking poll numbers and Obamacare implementation.

And when they emerged from their coverage of damning CBO reports and below-optimal healthcare exchange enrollment data, they wrote headlines like this one in (the Feb. 18) New York Times: "Retreat on Debt Fight Seen as GOP Campaign Salvo."

Hat-tip to the establishment.

Before seething at the suggestion that retreat on the debt ceiling is the conservative political equivalent of treason, consider what this tactic avoided in the short term and what it might achieve in the long run.

As the Times reported, Democrats have been "counting on bursts of political extremism to wound Republican candidates" and derail conservatives' hopes of taking the Senate in the fall.

For too long, elements of the GOP (however well-intended) have obliged them. A series of unforced errors has left Republicans appearing divided, disorganized and out of touch with the majority of voters.

Like gluttonous children, Democrats have delighted in the internecine battle within the GOP and eagerly anticipated that Republicans would serve them another helping when the issue of raising the debt ceiling came around again in early 2014.

Republicans in Congress were vastly unpopular after the shut-down, even among members of the tea party.

With the precipitous drop in Republican favorability, Democrats were counting on another high-stakes show-down over the debt ceiling to give vulnerable red state Democrats a much-needed boost in the polls.

If the shut-down taught the GOP anything, it reinforced the fact that while Republicans control only one house in one branch of the government, their influence over policymaking -- however principled they believe themselves to be -- is limited.

The desired pursuit of a more conservative agenda before 2016 will be realized only when Republicans control the Senate, at which time a president looking to secure his legacy will be more amenable to compromise.

It is only fair to acknowledge that a party's ideological flanks often serve to keep comfortable incumbents, who can be prone to straying, in check.

The establishment needs the tea party as a barometer for public sentiment and a reminder of its foundational principles.

But principles are only nice ideas unless and until they are paired with an achievable objective and armed with the tools required to pursue it, something the establishment has learned from experience.

Conservatives, even those tempted to complain, need to keep their eyes on the horizon, which grows brighter only when the GOP avoids the distractions that render its objectives, like reduced spending, school choice and healthcare reform that actually works, less feasible.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results, the Republican leadership's decision to avoid this particular fight has successfully kept them out of the news -- and the asylum.

If Republicans succeed in avoiding future political diversions and putting forward a positive reform agenda, they might put their party back in power and the country on the road to a new era of economic growth and upward mobility.

(Cynthia Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)

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