Past Republican takeovers of the federal government have led to conservative activists feeling betrayed by concessions to political pragmatism and policy necessity: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the last Republican Congress abandoned various pledges to cut spending and ultimately accrued massive debts. The same political and mathematical realities apply today: Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending are popular among the older voters upon whom the GOP relies. If you do not cut those programs, and you do not raise taxes, you simply cannot balance the budget—even if Republicans fulfill their campaign pledge to cut domestic discretionary spending down to its 2008 levels. “People think the two parties argue about government spending, but they’re really arguing over a very small piece of government spending,” says Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, and a former staff director for the House Appropriations Committee. Even Tea Partiers who would be willing to see spending cuts to defense or entitlement programs are being set up for unavoidable disappointment, because Republicans did not even propose any such cuts in their campaign platform…

When it comes to even those programs, it remains to be seen whether the conservative activists will apply the pressure they say they will. If supporters do not show legislators that a politically risky proposal—for Democrats it was overhauling the health-insurance system; for Republicans it will be making painful cuts to domestic spending—enjoys public support, they will be afraid to enact it. “Instead of expecting [politicians] to ride off a cliff, you make it so it’s not a cliff,” says Todd.