WASHINGTON -- The unusual display of reasonable behavior by House Republicans this week should be seen as a retreat -- a change in tactics -- but not a surrender. Democrats had better note the distinction.

Sooner or later, it had to dawn on the GOP that repeatedly re-enacting Pickett's Charge was not advancing the party's agenda or enhancing its electoral prospects. In martial terms, President Obama and the Democrats held the high ground; they were the ones visibly making an effort to govern, while Republicans did nothing but throw themselves into battles they were sure to lose.

The "fiscal cliff" showdown last December established the template: House Republicans made absolute and unrealistic demands, Obama said no, Democrats maintained their unity -- and Republicans eventually caved amid bitter recriminations. This pattern held all year, through the debt-ceiling fight and the government shutdown. In each instance, I believe, Republicans could have won more concessions if they had chosen to negotiate rather than throw a tantrum.

The GOP establishment, or what's left of it, understood what was happening. But far-right pressure groups such as Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth riled up the party's conservative base and infused true believers in Congress with false hope. Not coincidentally, such groups also filled their own coffers with fundraising campaigns based on these quixotic battles.

The far-right money machine never had the power to overcome the simple fact that Democrats controlled the White House and the Senate. But it did have the power to make Republicans fear that casting a vote for compromise would invite a primary challenge from the right.

How did this approach work out? The GOP's approval rating fell to the lowest levels ever seen.

This week, finally, the establishment struck back.

When news came that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had negotiated a compromise two-year budget agreement with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., members of the conservative pressure groups criticized the deal before they even knew what was in it. But the House leadership was defiant, not docile.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) fired back at the outside groups. "Frankly, I think they're misleading their followers," Boehner said Thursday. "I think they're pushing our members in places they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think they've lost all credibility."

Tough words were accompanied by action: The Republican Study Committee, an influential group of more than 170 conservatives in the House, fired its executive director, Paul Teller, for allegedly working with outside groups to try to scuttle the budget deal.

Does all of this mean that Republicans are now willing to stop all the brinkmanship and work alongside Democrats at the task of governance? Perhaps, but only in pursuit of a larger goal: It now appears that Republicans want to win.

The problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act was a blow to Democratic hopes of recapturing the House in November. The ACA website is now working, and by the summer, when the campaign is in full swing, the issue is likely to be less potent. But Republicans believe it has given them a real chance of winning a majority in the Senate.

They cannot do so as the "party of no," however. The GOP has an opening to present itself as capable, reasonable and worthy of being entrusted with power. But extremist rhetoric and internecine warfare do not inspire confidence.

The Republican establishment's victory over the fundamentalists is far from final. The current budget deal would rule out fiscal showdowns and shutdowns for the next 21 months. There are other issues, however, that provide ripe opportunity for far-right demagoguery -- immigration reform, for example. The GOP would greatly improve its chances in 2014 and beyond if it agreed to make even incremental progress toward reform. But can't you already hear the pressure groups howling?

Still, the implications for Democrats are clear: They had better raise their game.

As long as Republicans were more interested in fighting among themselves than getting anything done, there was no real pressure on Democrats to come up with innovative new ideas and solutions -- since the old Democratic ideas and solutions were the only ones on the table.

If the Republican Party really intends to get back in the game, voters will be presented with two competing visions of how to move the nation forward -- instead of one vision and one cartoon. If the progressive vision is to prevail, it needs to be fresh, vivid and clearly relevant to the moment. Same-old, same-old used to be good enough. It's not anymore.

 

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.