Through a combination of fear and fervor, Republican leaders in Congress and in the presidential campaign have lined up behind a radical new strategy in which all major decisions are made under threat — to shut the government in April, to implode the economy in July, to cut off money for the Federal Aviation Administration in August. Party leaders have said they will do this again and again, in perpetuity.
The Tea Party did not come up with this strategy. Although several of its elected members said they would never vote to raise the debt ceiling, it was John Boehner, the House speaker, who in May devised the fatal formula that President Obama would have to agree to cut more from spending than the amount of the debt-limit increase. This nonsense finally won the day. (Mr. Boehner was pilloried by Tea Party branches for raising the debt limit at all.)
In the House, there are only 60 members of the Tea Party caucus, and they were hardly a monolithic bloc. Last Monday, 32 of them supported the final debt deal and 28 voted against. To understand the Republican Party in the House, it is better to consider the Republican Study Committee, 176 fiscal hard-liners who make up two-thirds of the entire caucus (including many of the Tea Party members). Its chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio, was one of the biggest obstacles to a deal and refused to support it.
It is this larger group that Mr. Boehner and his lieutenants fear the most. The Tea Party alone could not topple the speaker. But the Republican core could.
This rightward flood tide has also picked up most of the Republican presidential field. Considering what a clear triumph the final bill was for the Republicans, cutting $2.4 trillion in spending without a dime of new tax revenue, at least a few candidates would logically have supported it. Only Jon Huntsman, however, has spoken up for it. The rest said they found it insufficiently ruthless, fearing a primary loss if they seemed the slightest bit soft.
Mitt Romney took a stand, against the bill, only after it was adopted. He complained that it requires a committee that might possibly cut defense spending and recommend higher taxes, though the latter is very unlikely. He did not deny the possibility of a catastrophic default, as Michele Bachmann did, but had no ideas to offer about averting it without this deal. That is what it means to stand at the center of a party that would rather exploit threats than worry about their consequences.