Why Republicans are giving in to get ahead

February 21, 2014, 8:32 PM UTC
House Speaker John Boehner

FORTUNE — In Washington’s dig-your-heels-in climate, a strange phenomenon is afoot. Congressional Republicans are caving to Democrats’ demands.

It first happened earlier this month when House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would bring a clean bill (no concessions, spending cuts, or any other side measures attached) to raise the debt ceiling to a vote. It may very well happen again next week, when Congress is back in session and a group of Republican senators is expected to strike a deal to pass an extension of unemployment benefits that their cohort has rejected twice since late December.

But don’t for a second think that this is borne out of bipartisanship and goodwill. Republicans are giving in to get ahead.

“What they’re doing is clearing the decks,” says Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. The debt ceiling vote and this most recent issue of the unemployment benefits are both issues in which polling shows that the Democrats have the better argument. Going into the election, they want to eliminate issues where the public is clearly with the Democrats.

MORE: Is Wal-Mart serious about boosting the minimum wage? Don’t bet on it.

Following the debt ceiling debate that led to a government shutdown in October, an MSNBC poll showed that just 24% of respondents had a favorable opinion of the GOP, and only 21% viewed the Tea party favorably. Both figures represented all-time lows. And a Quinnipiac University poll from January showed that 58% of Americans supported extending unemployment benefits by about three months past the current 26-week expiration point.

If Republicans were to continue to fight the jobless benefits extension, for instance, it would give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid more opportunities to tell stories of struggling Americans and lambast the Republicans for standing in the way of relief.

By removing these matters — and their unpopular stances on them — from the news cycle, Republicans are hoping that the media and the public will focus instead on the slow economic recovery and the bungled rollout of Obamacare — issues that give Republicans the upper hand going into the 2014 midterm elections, Jillson says. “They don’t want to screw that up.”

Some experts, though, think it’s generous to call Republicans’ recent surrenders a strategy at all.

“It strikes me that this reflects tension within the GOP,” says Seth Freeman, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at NYU Stern School of Business and Columbia University. “Whenever an organization’s hawks and doves are in disagreement, one extra vote can tip the balance. It can seem like it’s acting with a deliberate strategy, but then you pull back the curtain and there’s disarray.” That’s a point that resonates, especially since the clean debt ceiling bill went to the House floor after Republicans failed to rally support within their own ranks to tack on a military pension provision.

“I think the outcome here is simply the result of the aggregation of a bunch of individual members of Congress,” says, Robert Mnookin, director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project. “It doesn’t seem like it was driven by leadership.”