Now that both sides in the Great Shutdown Fiasco seem to be inching their way toward an exit strategy, the central concern appears to be how to arrive at it with the least political damage to each of them.
Already left in the wreckage is the hope of diehards like Sen. Ted Cruz to defund the dreaded Obamcare. Applicants for health care coverage jam the Internet mechanism set up under the president's signature Affordable Care Act to enroll the uninsured, belying Mr. Cruz's contention that the law is hugely unpopular.
While the President digs in, saying he won't negotiate on anything until the House Republicans agree to pay the federal government's bills, he permits what might be called non-negotiating negotiations.
House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, puts forward a proposal for a short-term raising of the federal borrowing authority. But he hesitates on allowing the House to vote on funding the government first, which would allow it to restart all aspects of its stalled functions and services.
Public opinion polls, flaunted by radio and television talk show agitators, assert that the Republican Party is taking a gigantic hit on its popularity, down to a record low approval rating of 28 percent in the Gallup Poll. But the same poll also indicates the Democrats' reputation has sunk too, along with Mr. Obama's ratings, though not as sharply.
So, in the way Washington and the political world work these days, the scorecard in the blame game is getting as much or more attention than the prospective damage the shutdown may do to the economy and the daily lives of nonworking Americans if deals on the budget and debt limit are not quickly reached.
The trick in these circumstances is to find a way Mr. Obama can maintain his posture of standing firm -- long overdue in many Democrats' minds -- while enabling Mr. Boehner and his no-give House Republicans to come away with some cover for their intransigence.
The better part of wisdom is for each side to suppress claims of victory or denials of defeat, and give the other a means to save face if the outcome suggests it has been taken to the cleaners. It's the practical application of putting oneself in the other fellow's shoes for the sake of achieving a desired end, without squeezing the greatest political benefit from an outcome.
A variant is the so-called Trollope Ploy, named after a device used by English novelist Anthony Trollope in the 1800s. One of his characters chose to misinterpret a gesture by suitor to fit her own preference, while ignoring its actual intention. President John F. Kennedy was said to have invoked the ploy in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev offered to remove the Russian missiles from Cuba if the Americans would pledge not to invade the island, he followed it with a caveat that NATO missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union also be removed. Kennedy responded affirmatively to the first proposal and made no public response to the second.
However, as I noted in a previous column, his brother Robert Kennedy privately assured Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the missiles in Turkey would be dismantled later, and they were, without fanfare. The arrangement cooled off the tense confrontation and enabled JFK to be seen as the winner, while giving Khrushchev what he wanted in his second message, assuaging the concerns of his military leaders in the Kremlin.
The Trollope Ploy may not be easily applicable in the current government shutdown. Both sides seem dug into uncompromising positions on Mr. Obama's demand that opening the government come first, before any negotiations on anything else.
The president appears to hold the high cards, and the Republicans clearly are in internal disarray and badly in need of a face-saving way out.
From this posture, Mr. Obama should recognize that extending a figurative fig leaf is a time-honored device in politics for covering up a potentially embarrassing outcome for the opposition. He should take care in this instance to see that in any ultimate resolution of this ugly standoff, Mr. Boehner is left with one.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.