IN THE 1988 campaign, the Republicans beat the Democrats at manipulating patriotic symbols. With the flag amendment in the House of Representatives this week, they tried again -- but this time they lost. It would be a mistake to see the House vote as a turning point in the nation's recent stagy, nasty politics. But the 177 House members -- 160 Democrats, 17 Republicans -- who preserved the First Amendment by blocking the proposed codicil on the flag performed a noble service at perhaps considerable risk. They are owed a greater debt than is likely to be soon recognized. Who knows? They may even have transferred some backbone to their rabbity fellows.

The national legislature has better things to do than debate flag burning. The issue is a retreat from reality, and perhaps no wonder. The deficit approaches $200 billion, the paths to its reduction are uniformly painful, national defense policy waits to be rewritten, the health care system is in financial crisis, income inequality is at a modern high, the savings and loan industry is in ruins -- and the vote of the week is on whether Congress and the states should be empowered, contrary to the free-speech clause, to prevent the physical desecration of the flag.

Everyone understood what kind of vote this was. No sooner was the tally in than the National Republican Congressional Committee was faxing press releases into the districts of Democrats who voted no, cutely accusing them of "flag wavering." The Republican operatives are trashing the values they are pretending to champion even as, in a new twist on the tactic of the big lie, they accuse their opponents of besmirching the values the opponents are struggling against press release and 30-second spot to uphold.

The victory was a tribute partly to Tom Foley. Some in his party have sniffed of late that he and his counterpart in the Senate, George Mitchell, have not been vigorous enough in their leadership. But on this most basic of issues and tests Mr. Foley bought time when he needed it a year ago, marshaled his troops, helped provide them with cover, above all took the right position on the merits -- and won. George Bush's position on this issue will not help him in the history books. Nor may it turn out to help him as much in the short run as the supposed shrewdness of some of his handlers would suggest. The only danger the flag-burners represent to the country is if they provoke precisely what Mr. Foley's House has now sanely and courageously prevented.