The payroll tax debacle is what happens when House Republican hotheads disregard their leaders’ advice. The payroll tax debacle is what happens when elected officials take legislative advice from talk radio and right-wing activists. The payroll tax debacle is what happens when conservatives overplay their hand. The payroll tax debacle is what happens when you can’t take yes for an answer. And finally, the payroll tax debacle is what happens when conservatives lose track of their agenda: smaller government, lower taxes and pro-growth policies.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was loyal to his caucus, almost to a fault. At a solo press conference ( why not drag up a few of the ringleaders who precipitated this drama?) he simply said, “We have fought the good fight. Why not do the right thing for the American people even though it’s not exactly what we want?”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was equally gracious in a statement that read:

“With today’s agreement between the Speaker and Leader Reid, working Americans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their taxes will not go up at the end of the year and that the President will have to finally decide on whether to move forward on a pipeline project that would create thousands of American jobs. From the beginning of this debate, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress have supported a one-year extension of last-year’s temporary payroll tax holiday. The only question was how to do it in a way that best serves the American people. The President’s statements castigating House Republicans have thus amounted to the kind of unhelpful political opportunism Americans are tired of. The President seems to forget that the only reason we are even discussing an extension of temporary measures like the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance is his own failure to turn our nation’s economy around nearly three years into his administration. While I am pleased that Senate Democrats and House Republicans have agreed to a solution that recognizes—and resolves—the legitimate concerns on both sides, I think it is crucial for everyone to realize that the larger goal is to move beyond a discussion of temporary assistance once and for all and toward a bipartisan plan to get our economy moving again, reform the tax code, and preserve and protect entitlements.”

In leadership offices on the GOP side last night there was relief and some eyerolling, but no delusion that the hardheads had learned much of anything. One Hill Republican said the only thing the objectors “learned” was that the leadership will “sell them out,” that is, refuse to go down in flames to protect them from their own silliness.

The GOP is fortunate in several respects. This happened in December and will be a distant memory by Valentine’s Day. (Such is the memory of the American electorate.)

Second, “almost causing taxes to go up but not actually” may be politically inept, but it doesn’t incite voters. Perhaps it will even strengthen Boehner’s hand in further standoffs with the hard-liners. (“Remember what happened when we tried this on the payroll tax cut!”) If nothing else, it was a wake-up call for the right that the White House still has some tricks up its collective sleeves.

Third, McConnell is and should rightly be credited with helping to make the deal. The Associated Press reported, “The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was a driving force behind Thursday’s agreement, imploring Boehner to accept the deal that McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid had struck last week and passed with overwhelming support in both parties.” And for good measure the AP pointed out: “Almost forgotten in the firestorm is that McConnell and Boehner had extracted a major victory last week, winning a provision that would require Obama to make a swift decision on whether to approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil to the U.S. and create thousands of construction jobs. To block the pipeline, Obama would have to declare that is not in the nation’s interest. Obama wanted to put the decision off until after the 2012 election.”

And fourth, and most important, there are much bigger fish to fry in 2012. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will have a budget proposal. Republicans will return to tax and entitlement reform, subjects that divide Democrats and reveal President Obama to be a non-leader. (As the Post editorial board wrote about Obama’s back-of-the-hand on the Ryan-Wyden Medicare reform proposal: “Unfortunately, instead of welcoming the effort, the White House chose to stomp on it. Invoking a phrase used by Newt Gingrich during the 1990s, communications director Dan Pfeiffer warned that the ‘Wyden-Ryan scheme’ could let traditional Medicare ‘wither on the vine,’ hiking premiums and forcing seniors onto private plans. This is not a constructive or adequate response to a serious proposal.”)

In 2012 Republicans have the chance to set the table for the 2012 election and draw a clear distinction between Obama’s philosophy and their own. If they are successful, the payroll tax mess will be a footnote, if that, in the history of the 112th Congress.