There is a bigger backstory. Since 1994, when Newt Gingrich led his party tribe from 40 years of wandering in the desert of the minority to the promised land of House majority, Republicans have become more stridently anti-government and anti-Washington. They have also, when in the majority, become less interested in trying to find policy solutions across party lines. Their desire to act like a parliamentary majority, maintaining rigid discipline and working only internally, became known as the “Hastert Rule” under Gingrich’s successor.
Perfect party discipline continued when Republicans, in the minority, faced Barack Obama in his first two years—unity that translated into reflexive opposition to everything Obama wanted to do. It was part of a broader strategy to delegitimize Obama and Democrats; to cultivate anger and unhappiness as Gingrich had done in 1994 in the midterm elections in 2010; and to seize back majority status, undo the Obama program, and cut government dramatically.
The strategy was led by a group of younger House members who called themselves the “Young Guns”—Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan. They seized on the debt limit as their key issue in the campaign, promising to use it as a weapon to force Obama, and government spending, to their knees, and exploited for that purpose the populist Tea Party anger that had been triggered by the financial bailout in 2008. Aided by talk radio, conservative bloggers, and social media, they recruited radical candidates, gave them talking points, and promised immediate major cuts in spending the day they assumed the majority.
The electoral strategy worked like a charm—Republicans gained more seats in the House and in state legislatures than they had in more than 60 years, and recaptured the majority. The Young Guns had assumed that once the new lawmakers came to Washington, they could co-opt them in the interest of keeping their majority status. That was not to be. The majority that populism had wrought and House Republican leaders had exploited instead created a solid cadre of members who pushed the leaders away from realism and pragmatic compromise, abetted by the continuing drumbeat from right-wing media figures and their acolytes. Another huge election victory in 2014, which included recapturing the Senate, emboldened the radicals—the government shutdown they had pushed in 2013 did not cost them at the polls. But it left party leaders in both houses realizing that now, with Republicans controlling all of Congress, the need to show responsibility, no longer playing games with shutdowns or debt limits, was even greater. The growing strength of populist radicals resulted in the ironic primary defeat of the head Young Gun, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, by Tea Partyite Dave Brat.
It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently. The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like pinatas.