A GOP House divided cannot govern

Will the tea party be chastened by recent defeat? Not likely, or not for long. Because tea party leaders inhabit an alternative political reality — sheltered in safe districts or states, applauded by conservative media, incited (or threatened) by advocacy groups, carried along by a deep current of anger and frustration among activists — they have no incentive to view defeat as defeat. In fact, turning against tactical radicalism would involve serious political risk. So every setback is interpreted as a need for greater purity and commitment.

This conflict is certain to bleed over into the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. The influence of a highly committed minority is exaggerated in small electorates. All the conditions for volatility will be present: voters embittered by recent defeats, a growing infrastructure of tea party institutions, a campaign finance system easily influenced by ideologically eccentric billionaires.

The trends that helped elevate a series of politically unserious Republican candidates in 2012 — including Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann — have grown only stronger. It is instructive how easily Sen. Ted Cruz has gotten to the right of Sen. Rand Paul. Who will be able to gather momentum to Cruz’s starboard? Ben Carson? Allen West? Republican primary voters tend to make more sober political choices in the end. But the process itself creates a durable image of radicalism and instability.