When Charles Boustany, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, reflects on how his party can recover from its embarrassing and damaging defeat on Capitol Hill, he sounds like a man ready to embrace a 12-step programme for recovering alcoholics.
“The first step is to recognise the problem and call it for what it is,” he says.
The “problem” in his estimation is the Tea Party faction in Congress – the 20 to 30 members of his party who have adopted an agenda that is “not based on reality” but on “false expectations” of what can be achieved through intransigence. These ideas, he says, are peddled by libertarian-leaning groups such as the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation that put intense pressure on legislators and weaken the party as a whole.
“We are trying to move forward with a conservative agenda and maintain leverage with the Senate and every step of the way we are getting undermined,” he says. “The president knows that the [House] Speaker [John Boehner] doesn’t have the votes in his own conference.”
Ultimately, this dynamic has forced Mr Boehner – who is the only person who can bring a vote to the floor – to rely on Democratic legislators to pass key pieces of legislation, including the deal on Wednesday night to reopen the government and avert a US default, because he cannot keep his rowdy rank-and-file members unified.
In the immediate aftermath of the Republican shutdown and debt ceiling debacle there is evidence that many prominent Republicans are indeed speaking out against the hardline elements of their party – such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whom they blame for pushing Republicans to adopt a strategy to cut “Obamacare” funding which party leaders knew would fail.
John McCain, the Arizona senator, called the shutdown wrangling “one of the more shameful chapters” in the Senate’s history. Even Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah – who began taking much more conservative positions in the run-up to his own re-election in 2012 to mollify conservative critics – lashed out at the Heritage Foundation.
Under the helm of Jim DeMint, a former senator, the organisation’s reputation has been transformed, and not for the good. Many people within the Beltway think Heritage, a once respected conservative think-tank, has become little more than a radical pressure group. It gave its full-throated support to the shutdown strategy and Mr DeMint is seen as a huge player in Washington.
“There’s a real question on the minds of many Republicans now – I am not just speaking for myself [but] for a lot of people: is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything any more?” Mr Hatch said on MSNBC. “It’s in danger of losing its clout and its power.”
A handful of polls clearly show that the Republican strategy was resoundly rejected by the vast majority of Americans while a new poll by Pew Research this week showed that the Tea Party was less popular than ever.
“They tried their strategy and I think the members got burnt and people are looking around and saying, ‘guys, you led us off the cliff’,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman. “Within the Tea Party, they are probably giving each other high-fives.”
Races across the country are also showing a tendency to favour moderates: Cory Booker, a Democrat, beat his Tea Party-leaning opponent in a Senate race in New Jersey. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, who is seen as a moderate in a “blue” state, is expected to win re-election easily, while Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, a swing state, looks likely to lose his bid when voters in both states head to the polls next month.
But there are many reasons to doubt that the shellacking Republicans have faced in the court of public opinion will have any impact on the status quo in Capitol Hill – beginning with the vote on Wednesday night. While most Republicans who are speaking out against the Tea Party say the hardliners in their ranks are just a vocal minority, more Republican legislators voted against the budget and debt ceiling deal than supported it, seemingly disregarding all the negative polls.
The most likely reason? The conservative activist groups that finance primary challenges against these Republicans do not believe they lost anything. The rhetoric used by these groups essentially divides lawmakers into two categories: fighters and chickens.
“The original Republican position was, ‘don’t even try’. It was just complete capitulation. We just think you should have the fight,” says Barney Keller of the Club for Growth. “We’re going to continue in our mission.”