WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress are like a dog that chases cars and finally catches one. There is a fleeting sense of accomplishment, followed by sheer panic.
God bless Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., for at least being honest. "We're not going to be disrespected," he told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."
Nobody knows what the House Republicans' goal might be at this point. So far, they have managed to shut down the government and maintain enough unity in their ranks to prevent an open revolt by moderates. They also succeeded in getting Democrats to agree to fund the government at sharply reduced "sequester" levels, but for some reason they renounced this victory.
The list of what Republicans haven't been able to do is considerably longer.
Most galling for them -- and most beneficial for the country -- is that they failed to defund or delay Obamacare. The health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running, despite technical glitches. People across the country are buying coverage for themselves and their families. This fight is over, people. Republicans lost.
They also failed to extract concessions on a long list of unrelated policy demands. President Obama has not agreed to approve the Keystone pipeline, expand offshore drilling or ban late-term abortion.
Republicans have not managed to figure out how to avoid being blamed for the government shutdown.
For that matter, many people inside the conservative bubble have had enough of this nonsense. It is clear that a majority of the House, and perhaps a majority of Republicans in the House, would vote to reopen the government -- if given the chance.
Which brings me to Speaker John Boehner's major accomplishment in this ridiculous affair: Preventing the House from considering a simple, "clean" bill to fund government operations. If such a bill came up, it would pass. The national parks would reopen and the service academy football teams wouldn't have to hitchhike to their next games. For some reason, Boehner acts as if this outcome is unthinkable.
How did Boehner get himself into this situation? By calculating, based on experience, that when push came to shove, Obama would fold.
Recall that the dispute among Republicans was not whether to engage in hostage-taking but when. Boehner favored skipping a fight over funding -- after all, Democrats had agreed to the Republicans' overall number -- and using the necessity to raise the debt ceiling as leverage to win concessions.
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the Calgary-born potential candidate for president, fired up the tea party base with the fantasy that Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate would forsake the Affordable Care Act -- something progressives have sought for decades -- in exchange for six weeks of government funding. A few dozen far-right members of the House muscled Boehner into taking the wrong hostage.
Now the debt ceiling is threatened, too, since the Treasury's borrowing authority will run out on Oct. 17. Two years ago, facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic default, Obama gave in. This time, he has refused to move an inch.
At a meeting Wednesday with congressional leaders, including Boehner, the president was clear. He would be happy to talk about a wide range of policy issues, he said, including ways to make the ACA work better. But those conversations will not begin until Congress passes a funding bill for the government and raises the debt ceiling.
Senior administration officials say Obama sees a vital principle at stake. Obamacare and the other policies that far-right House members want to change were debated in Congress and ratified by last year's election. The president believes that it would weaken American democracy if one faction of one party of one house of Congress were allowed to impose its will through extortion.
This spectacle of dysfunction will surely damage both sides politically. But Obama never has to face voters again. House Republicans are up for re-election in 13 months.
Having caught the car, Boehner would be wise to let it go. Even at the expense of a little dignity.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.