If you took a power nap, or went around the corner for lunch, you may have missed the precise moment when Republicans suddenly started “winning” in their perpetual fiscal fight with the president and congressional Democrats. That’s how fast the CW changed from interpreting the fiscal game as either “apes on a treadmill staring at each other while the country goes straight to tell” or “Obama’s schooling these extremists,” to the current rapidly burgeoning belief that GOPers have routed the opposition in dealing with the appropriations sequester by–and this gives the whole thing its zen charm–doing nothing.

As Jonathan Chait explains, “doing nothing” to stop the sequester meant Republicans were able to boast the one available fiscal achievement–a reduction in funding for most non-entitlement federal spending–that didn’t involve blowing up the global economy or shutting down the government. All it took (and I don’t want to belittle this accomplishment) was to get virtually all congressional Republicans talking about the sequester as a no-brainer kind of down payment on real spending cuts before the military-industrial complex could get to them to object.

Better yet, the across-the-board nature of the sequester (at least among the non-exempt categories) kept the cuts relatively abstract, which is exactly how the public likes ’em.

Hence the “victory”: do as little as possible and bring back a trophy that’s both shiny and insubstantial.

But as Chait observes, this only works so long as the entire country continues to consider the sequester harmless–and as long as Republicans continue to accept the exemption from spending cuts of the very government programs they consider fiscally profligate or culturally immoral (you know, all that “redistribution”).

[I]f you define the struggle in purely zero-sum terms, Republicans can “win.” What they can win is the ability to keep in place, more or less permanently, spending reductions that both exempt the programs they most badly want to cut and that are designed stupidly so as to create maximum harm for minimum budgetary saving.

So in effect Republicans are “winning” only because they have eschewed other do-nothing fiscal strategies–fights over the debt limit and the omnibus appropriations bill–that would create greater and clearer damage, and perhaps even sacrifice victory altogether. But it’s not easy to see how they get from here to what they actually want, unless it’s just a matter of getting to 2014 and 2016 and a fresh chance to change the balance of power.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.