If the war gave the left a sense of purpose, the exploding federal debt is doing the job for the right. There is no small irony to this, as Bush-era tax cuts and the enormously expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (wars which I supported and continue to support) are responsible for much of the deterioration of America’s fiscal position. It’s taken an economic calamity to remind grassroots conservatives of the virtues of pre-Reaganite root-canal economics. This is not the modern, youthful, multiethnic, forward-looking GOP that Karl Rove and George W. Bush envisioned when they were plotting a run for the White House. Nor is this the highly-educated answer to the middle-class and mostly middle-aged netroots nation. Like the Perot voters who were so desperate for sincerity that they turned to an eccentric and enormous-eared billionaire, this is a movement of old, flinty, very skeptical people who don’t believe President Obama when he claims that he can cover the uninsured and improve quality and lower costs long-term. They see it as their duty to save America from smooth-talking politicians.

Obama-era Republicans are as ill-prepared for this wave of angry activism as Bush-era Democrats were for the rise of the netroots. It took years for inside-the-Beltway Democrats to understand that the progressive base wanted a feistier, more confrontational politics. Only when Democrats united to defeat Social Security reform and to pressure the White House on Iraq did the party start to build momentum. That could be why most congressional Republicans are reluctant to cut a deal with the White House: they sense, rightly or wrongly, that maintaining clear distinctions will work to their advantage.