This is reinforced by the development of an alternative establishment — including talk-radio personalities, a few vocal congressional leaders and organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — that creates a self-reinforcing impression of its power to reshape politics (while lacking much real connection to the views of the broader electorate).

And these ideas do have some resonance among conservative activists who are convinced that Republicans lost recent presidential elections because their candidates lacked combativeness. At least, the argument goes, Ted Cruz has some backbone. It is the political expression of pent-up anger. “If we’re going to fight,” says Michele Bachmann, “we need to fight now.” Few believe any longer that Republicans will be able to defund Obamacare in this session of Congress; it is the fight that counts. This is a word that crops up frequently in tea-party discourse. Not winning. Not strategy. Not consequences. The fight.

Under normal circumstances, this faction — composing less than 20 percent of the House Republican caucus — might exercise a marginal influence. But we have the peculiar situation of a divided Congress and a weak president. The tea-party faction holds the margin of victory in a slim Republican House majority. Boehner has kept some semblance of order by appeasing it — an approach of diminishing utility. And now, in a series of budget showdowns, the interests of tea-party activists have suddenly aligned with those of Obama (who needs a dramatic reshuffling of the political deck). Both sides prefer a powerless, discredited Republican leadership.