The wounded are especially dangerous fighters. President Barack Obama now occupies the high ground in the debt-ceiling debate, having called the Republicans' bluff on the debt. He showed that deficit reduction is not now, and never has been, the GOP's priority. He dare not get overconfident.
After thwarting the deal that House Speaker John Boehner was cooking up with Obama, Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader and Boehner's rival, needs to show he knew what he was doing and recoup political ground. Cantor is likely to present Obama with spending cuts that the president once seemed to endorse as part of a large deal but will have to reject now that the big agreement is dead. There is still a lot of danger out there.
But it's already clear that history will show that Boehner, the old war horse, was a better political calculator than Cantor, the self-styled "young gun." Boehner saw an opportunity to make huge cuts in entitlement programs, shake off the severe damage done his party by Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, and ignite a war between Obama and the Democratic base.
Boehner made what, in the larger scheme of things, were modest concessions on tax increases, getting three times as much in spending cuts. Only House Republicans can think that three steps forward and one step back constitutes retreat. Boehner lives in the real world. Most members of his caucus live in Foxland or Rushville, where talk shows define the truth.
Obama thought solving a big problem would outweigh any political difficulties his deal with Boehner might cause him. But Cantor saved Obama a lot of trouble. He protected him from a bitter intra-party fight and made crystal clear that preserving low taxes for the wealthy and for corporations is the GOP's driving objective. Even the most resolutely centrist and cautious have been forced to concede this essential truth of American politics.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell -- he's astute like Boehner, but less interested in policy -- signaled on Tuesday that this whole adventure of tying a debt-limit increase to the quest for big spending cuts has become a losing strategy. His convoluted but clever proposal would make Democrats take all responsibility for increasing the debt cap. This gets the GOP out of its current box and forces Democrats to cast a lot of unpleasant votes. That would help Republicans take over the Senate in 2012, which is what McConnell cares about most.
Thus has the GOP forced its way into a sentence on which Democrats once held a monopoly: Yes, Republicans are in disarray. They're divided among those who know Boehner was right, those like McConnell who want to get out of the debt-limit mess altogether, and the troika now running Republican House strategy (Cantor, Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy) who need something to show for having brought the country to the brink.
The best way out of this impasse is, unfortunately, a political nonstarter: to work with the budget crafted by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), which shows you can get a lot of deficit reduction by mixing some spending cuts with higher taxes on the very wealthy. It's a road Obama might usefully have considered earlier.
The rational alternative is a deal with enough cuts to satisfy a majority of Republicans and enough revenue to win over a sufficient number of House Democrats to make up for tea partiers who'll never support a debt limit increase. If Boehner reasserts himself, that's probably where things will go.
Here's the worrisome scenario: Cantor takes every domestic spending cut that was discussed as part of the negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, declares that the administration has blessed them, and packages them together for a vote.
Never mind that Cantor walked out of the talks before there was serious negotiation about defense cuts and revenues, and thus no real agreement. Cantor, who needs to embarrass the Democrats and pull Obama down from the commanding heights, was shrewd to get the administration talking early about cuts in domestic spending and to put a lot of its cards on the table. He can now play those cards against Obama by forcing the president to reject reductions he had once considered when a larger agreement looked possible.
This might look like a political game. But at this stage, House Republicans can't afford to end this whole sorry episode with a whimper. The bang they are looking for could yet cause a lot of collateral damage.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).