Tea Party Politics: A Look Inside the Republican Suicide Machine

Inside the Republican Suicide Machine

The day before Congress broke for
its August recess, on an afternoon when most of official Washington
was tying up loose ends and racing to get out of town, Sen. Ted
Cruz was setting the stage for the chaos that has consumed the
nation’s capital in recent weeks.

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Destroying America

The tall Tea
Party-backed Texan – the state’s junior senator, with less than a
year in office – worked his mischief in a windowless Capitol
basement, where dozens of the most radical members of the House had
gathered for a meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Once a
marginal group known for elevating anti-government dogma above
party loyalty, the RSC now counts among its members 174 of the 232
House Republicans.

“Father, we thank you,” says
Rep. Michele Bachmann, opening the meeting. “You are the most
important presence in this room.” In a pinstriped suit and yellow
tie, Cruz sits at the center of a long conference table, flanked by
RSC chair Steve Scalise and by the group’s most powerful member,
former chair Jim Jordan of Ohio – who has routinely marshaled House
rebels into battle against leadership. Jordan flashes the visiting
senator a conspiratorial smile.

Soft-spoken but
passionate, Cruz derides the work of House leadership, who this
same week have scheduled a 40th, futile bill to roll back
Obamacare. Instead of “symbolic statements” that “won’t become
law,” Cruz says, the time has come to force a real fight – one that
Republicans can “actually win.” It’s imperative to act now, Cruz
warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans
get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.” His plan: Yoke
the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House
will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government
shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no
choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. “As
scary as a shutdown fight is,” Cruz insists, “if we don’t stand and
defund Obamacare now, we never will.”

With those
words, Cruz fired the first shot in a civil war that has cleaved
Republicans in both chambers of Congress – a struggle that
threatens the legitimacy of the Grand Old Party and the stability
of the global economy. The fight has little to do with policy, or
even ideology. It pits the party’s conservative establishment
against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics
and, ultimately, control of the party. Each side surveys the other
with distrust, even contempt. The establishment believes the
insurgents’ tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the
establishment lacks the courage of its alleged convictions – while
its own members are so convinced of their righteousness that they
compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The
establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested
interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed
by wealthy ideologues who simply seek to tear down government. Both
sides are steeled by millions in unregulated, untraceable “dark
money.”

Having backed the GOP into a shutdown
fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are
winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is
now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt
because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on
the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled
from power.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,
and neither has anybody else around here,” says the House’s eldest
statesman, 87-year-old John Dingell, who has represented Michigan
since 1955. “It’s a grave misfortune for the country.”

When Republicans took control of the House in 2011 –
fueled by the passion of the Tea Party and the virtually unlimited
funding of donors like the Koch brothers – casual observers of
American politics saw a House GOP united in the politics of the
extreme right. But inside the Capitol, the story was more
complicated. The leadership that the Tea Party had vaulted to power
– Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor – were
members of the GOP’s tainted old guard. Although divided by a
generation and by an often fierce political rivalry, both Boehner
and Cantor abetted the budget-busting “compassionate conservatism”
of Karl Rove. Cantor rubber-stamped the “Bridge to Nowhere”;
Boehner was a frequent flier on corporate jets. They teamed up to
steer the passage of TARP in the face of fierce opposition from
grassroots conservatives – a moment that Tea Party leaders cite as
the birth of their insurgency.

Cantor, along
with GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, had actively recruited most of the 85
incoming freshmen. “They figured they could ride the Tea Party to a
majority, and co-opt all of those people,” says Norm Ornstein, a
scholar at the conservative think tank AEI. But from the start,
leadership misjudged the new arrivals. Many had come to Washington
to fight, not fall in line. “You show up in the fall,” says Rep.
Tim Huelskamp, a self-described Young Turk from Kansas, “and they
say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and everybody follow.’ And we
said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of folks who don’t very much like the
direction you’ve been wantin’ to go.'”

As
leadership struggled to corral the class of 2010, a fellow
congressman from Boehner’s home state of Ohio seized the advantage.
Jordan, the RSC chair, recruited 78 freshmen into his fold. The RSC
suddenly comprised a majority of the majority party, and Jordan
found himself in a position of tremendous power and leverage,
concepts that the wiry but broad-shouldered third-term congressman
understood in his bones – he won two NCAA championships wrestling
in the 134-pound class.

Boehner never knew what
hit him. The speaker would soon suffer two stinging defeats at the
hands of Jordan and the RSC. The first came during the 2011
debt-ceiling battle, when Boehner shut out his conference to
negotiate with President Obama a $4 trillion “grand bargain” that
combined modest tax increases with draconian spending cuts. By any
objective standard of Washington deal making, Boehner had extracted
extraordinary concessions from a sitting Democratic
president.

Believing the old rules of Washington
still applied, Boehner was confident that where he led, House
Republicans would follow. But Jordan’s RSC simply wouldn’t abide
any deal that raised taxes, and more than 170 members were united
against the speaker. If Boehner pressed ahead, the Grand Bargain
could only pass with a majority of Democratic votes – a scenario
that Cantor feared would spark a mutiny. So he spiked Boehner’s
deal. “We were preventing the speaker from making a bad mistake for
himself and the rest of the leadership team,” a former leadership
aide tells Rolling Stone.

Jordan’s intransigence forced Republican leaders and the
president to settle on a smaller, cuts-only package that cost
America its AAA credit rating and created the blunt
across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Jordan and
more than 60 House radicals opposed even that final deal, but he
still claimed victory: “Conservatives stood firm,” he gloated. “We
[forced] Washington to begin addressing its spending­driven debt
crisis.”

Jordan beat Boehner again a year later
during the fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts. In December 2012,
the speaker introduced a compromise measure to preserve the Bush
rates for incomes of less than $1 million. “We’re going to have the
votes to pass,” Cantor declared. Grover Norquist – the keeper of
the Republican Party’s anti-tax pledge – gave his blessing. But
Jordan and his loyalists locked arms against it. “We’re the party
that says you shouldn’t raise taxes,” Jordan responded. After
Boehner couldn’t find the votes, he tearfully recited the serenity
prayer before his conference, asking God’s strength to accept “the
things I cannot change.”

With Boehner bowed,
Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
crafted a compromise that sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89
to 8 – an astonishing display of bipartisanship in the chamber of
Congress that people used to think of as the broken one. In a
public rebuke of his House’s right flank, Boehner brought the bill
to the floor and joined a minority of Republicans and Nancy
Pelosi’s majority bloc of Democrats in voting for it. The message
was clear: The Capitol was uniting against the destructive House
partisans. Jordan fumed at the passage of what he called a “classic
Washington deal.”

Seeking to restore discipline
to his House, Boehner tried to play the tough guy. He kicked four
Tea Party troublemakers – including Huelskamp – off their favored
committees. “They were fired because they were assholes,” says a
source close to leadership. But once again, Boehner misread his
opponents. Far from backing down, the backbenchers mounted a
January coup that came close to toppling Boehner. Huelskamp cast
his ballot for Jordan.

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Shutdown Hypocrisy

Chastened, the
speaker was beginning to understand that he needed to stop feuding
with his fellow Buckeye. Jordan – a politician with almost zero
national profile – has emerged as the commander the House GOP’s
opposition bloc, says Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning
33-year-old Republican from Michigan. “Jim Jordan is a strong
leader,” Amash says. “Leadership understands that if his concerns
are not addressed, there could be a large group – 40 to 50 – that
doesn’t stick with leadership on big votes.”

Jordan eschews the spotlight, but he has strong allies. He
sits on a shadow leadership team, dubbed the Jedi Council, that
Boehner would deputize as a silent partner in shaping the House’s
agenda. (Other members of the group are Paul Ryan, current RSC
chair Scalise, and former chairs Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom
Price of Georgia.) At the beginning of the new Congress, stinging
from the loss of the tax battle, Jordan and the Jedi were eager to
lead Republicans into a new confrontation with President Obama over
the debt ceiling. They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous
battle: Brinksmanship works. But the first possible moment for such
a fight would be in February, right in the middle of Obama’s
re-election honeymoon. So the Jedi decided to hold their fire. At a
House Republican strategy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in
January, Boehner accepted their plan, along with a list of other
strategic aims, known as the “Williamsburg Accord.”

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The hard-liners
were firmly in control. In February, the House temporarily
suspended the debt ceiling – intending to give the president’s poll
numbers three months to come back to earth. In March, Republicans
rallied around a new, even more extreme version of the Ryan budget
and forced Democrats in the Senate to produce a budget of their own
for the first time in four years. The strategy was to showcase the
parties’ contrasting visions – a Democratic budget that raised
taxes and never got to balance versus a Republican budget that
slashed safety-net programs to achieve balance in 10
years.

In the spring, the House forced the
sequester – $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered
by the first debt-ceiling deal – to go into effect. The RSC was
delighted; they’d feared leadership might lose their resolve on
spending reductions that hit defense contractors and other
financial backers of the GOP. “A lot of us were very concerned that
leadership wouldn’t commit to locking in those cuts,” said current
chairman Scalise, a gruff congressman from Louisiana.

But no one would see quite how radical the party had
become until July, when after months of keeping the specifics under
wraps, the House unveiled a slate of bills comprising the most
reactionary major-party legislative program in a generation. It was
calculated to block every facet of President Obama’s agenda,
whether halting his executive orders to curb carbon pollution or
stymieing spending on infrastructure and research intended to
jump-start the economy. The bills also punished the GOP’s most
hated agencies – slashing the IRS budget by a quarter, the EPA
budget by one-third, and eliminating funding for public
broadcasting. Even Appropriations chair Hal Rogers, an old-guard
Republican who once brought so many earmarks home to his district
in Kentucky that they dubbed him the “Prince of Pork,” conceded
almost apologetically, “These are tough bills.”

The unified Republican strategy drove toward a new
debt-ceiling standoff with the president. At Williamsburg,
Republicans agreed to fight for spending cuts needed to put the
country on a “10-year path to balance.” The promise sounded
hardcore, and a few RSC members interpreted it to mean that
Republicans would settle for no less than forcing Obama to
implement the Ryan budget. “It’s the next logical step,” declared
Huelskamp. In reality, the promise was strategically ambiguous –
crafted to unite factions that did not actually see eye-to-eye –
and designed by Boehner to give him room to make a deal that didn’t
require a humiliating defeat of the president. As Indiana Rep. Todd
Rokita, a member of the budget committee, explained to House
conservatives, there was plenty of low-hanging fruit in the budget
that could be traded for a short-to-medium-term increase in the
debt ceiling – including $200 billion in future Social Security
cuts President Obama asked for in his own budget. “That’s worth
something in terms of a debt-ceiling increase,” Ro­kita said,
ticking off other cuts that could be cobbled together to broker a
decidedly ungrand bargain, including changes to farm policy and
federal flood insurance.

The strategy – very
explicitly – was not to turn the debt ceiling into a do-or-die
standoff over Obamacare. And at least on the surface, House
Republicans were united. There was one problem. The Jedi had bought
themselves too much time. Originally, they’d expected the
debt-ceiling fight to arrive in May. But with the economy
improving, tax revenues spiked. Then mortgage giant Fannie Mae
repaid $60 billion in bailout money. Treasury was flush. And it was
now becoming clear that members who were promised a knock-down
fight with the administration before the summer recess – the spoils
from which they could tout to their constituents back home –
weren’t going to get one.

The Young Turks began
to grow restless.

On
August 20th, nearly three weeks after Cruz first made his pitch to
House conservatives, the senator took his campaign against
Obamacare to the next level, joining his mentor – former South
Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation
– for the Dallas stop of DeMint’s nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town
Hall Tour.” The original Tea Party uprising of 2009 took place in
stuffy community centers and church basements. But tonight’s event
– which packs a capacity crowd of 2,000 into the grand ballroom of
a Hilton – feels less like a grassroots insurrection than a
corporate convention. Jumbotron projection screens flank a large
stage decorated with Texas and United States flags. On a riser at
the back sits an array of camera-pleasing, demographically
unrepresentative audience members – African-Americans, Latinos,
young people.

Just a few years ago, the Heritage
Foundation was a stodgy, deeply conservative think tank at the
heart of establishment Washington, its main business offering
right-wing-policy solutions, not driving government gridlock. In
fact, the cornerstone of Obamacare – universal health care based on
a mandate for individuals to buy insurance – was originally dreamed
up by Heritage. Tonight, DeMint will denounce Obamacare as “the
most destructive law ever imposed on the American
people.”

If Cruz is the frontman of the defund
fight, DeMint is the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the
battle through a tight network of outside pressure groups under his
sway, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for
Growth. In Congress, DeMint wasn’t much of a legislator – more like
a Super PAC who happened to be a senator. Finding many of his
Republican colleagues repulsively moderate, DeMint launched the
Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised millions from the Tea
Party’s grassroots to elect a new guard of anti-government
hard-liners, including Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Cruz in Texas,
Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Marco Rubio in Florida.
SCF also backed a crop of fringe candidates – including Christine
O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri – who won primaries
with Tea Party support, but whose oddball views on witchcraft and
rape (respectively) sank their general-election prospects, keeping
Democrats in control of those seats. Surprisingly, that suited
DeMint just fine: He has said he’d rather have a Senate with “30
Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters.”

DeMint
holds the religious views of the extreme right, arguing that
homosexuals and even sexually active unmarried women should be
barred from jobs as teachers. But DeMint is best known as an
inflexible economic conservative. Not to mention a first-class
opportunist: Last December, he walked away from the Senate in the
middle of his second term for a job that would give him even more
power in his quest to revolutionize Republican politics.

DeMint quickly put his stamp on the organization. In the
first high-profile study released under his tenure, Heritage warned
that comprehensive immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3
trillion. The math was wildly at odds with the nonpartisan
Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that reform would
reduce the deficit. And it soon came to light that its top author
once claimed to be able to rank the intelligence of different
ethnic and racial groups – starting with Jews at the top and blacks
at the bottom. “The scholarly quality of Heritage’s work was never
up to academic standards,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former fellow at
the think tank. “But there was some degree of quality control.
That’s gone out the window under DeMint.”

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With his
defund-Obamacare road show, DeMint marshaled the Tea Party to his
side – and against congressional leaders. An online petition at
Dontfundit.com
gathered nearly 2 million signatures. Heritage Action folded new
recruits into its army of 5,600 trained “Sentinels” across
Republican districts who parrot DeMint’s talking points. It’s all
part of a sophisticated strategy – modeled, surprisingly, after the
Obama campaigns – to turn up the heat on Washington lawmakers. The
big idea, says Mike Needham, Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, is
to keep members of Congress “enveloped in our message” – both on
the Hill, “where he’s hearing it from our six lobbyists,” and at
home, “where he’s hearing it from a well-informed Sentinel who is a
Tea Party leader.”

Once
again, the GOP establishment had underestimated the strength of the
party’s insurgent wing. Initially, old-guard Republicans seemed to
believe they could derail Cruz with a few bons mots. North Carolina
Sen. Richard Burr excoriated Cruz’s plan as “the dumbest idea I’ve
ever heard.” Karl Rove warned that when Washington can’t keep the
lights on, “it’s an iron law that Republicans get blamed.” Eric
Cantor assured the National Review that the
plan didn’t have traction in the House: “No one,” he said, “is
advocating a government shutdown.”

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But by
the time Congress reconvened on the morning of September 10th, 80
radical members – including Jordan – had signed on to an open
letter demanding that the budget bill “affirmatively de-fund”
Obamacare. Worse, top voices in the Tea Party had turned against
House leaders with the kind of venom usually reserved for the
president: “If this thing is not defunded, it’s Boehnercare!”
thundered Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host.

With the speaker in the cross hairs, it was Cantor who was
chosen to announce the leadership’s new strategy to keep the lights
on in Washington: He declared that within a week the House would
vote to pass a single bill with two parts – one defunding
Obamacare, the other funding the government. The bill would force
the Senate to vote up or down on Obamacare, before then considering
the budget. Standing ramrod-straight in a banker’s suit, Cantor
flashed unusual vitriol: “It’s time for the Senate to stand up and
tell their constituents where they stand on this
atrocity of a law!”

Just a
few years ago, a bill of this complexity would have passed before
anyone outside the Capitol even understood what was in it. “It used
to be a closed system,” says Matt Kibbe, CEO of FreedomWorks, whose
Super PAC spent almost $20 million last election cycle backing Tea
Party candidates. “You usually didn’t find out until after the
vote.”

But no sooner had Cantor’s press
conference wrapped than his clever strategy began to
unravel.

That same morning, thousands of
bused-in Tea Party activists from as far away as Tennessee,
gathered in the withering heat of the Capitol’s West Lawn to demand
that Congress “exempt America” from Obamacare. Some activists held
signs that were shocking in the traditional manner of Tea Party
hyperbole: “Defund O’Hitler Care!” Others targeted a new enemy:
“Traitor Boehner Speaks Not for We the People.”

One by one, the leading lights of Tea Party Washington
took the stage to denounce the Cantor Plan as an empty gesture –
and worse. Standing tall in a white button-down and black
ostrich-skin boots, Cruz blasted the House leadership for
“procedural tricks” to let Harry Reid fund Obamacare. He was joined
by fellow DeMint loyalists: Rand Paul demanded that House members
with a backbone stand against the “invertebrate caucus.” Utah Sen.
Mike Lee, whose cherubic face belies his extreme message, drew a
line in the sand: “If you fund this law, you’re for it!”

Back inside the Capitol, the anti-Cantor Plan forces
already had their hashtag. “I do not support the #hocuspocusplan,”
tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. First elected in 2010, Amash recently
led the charge to defund the NSA’s surveillance of average
Americans. He has a wide following on social media, which he uses
to communicate directly with his constituents, explaining every
vote he casts, in detail, on his Facebook page. Mostly, Amash votes
no – including 136 times against the Republican Party line.
Visiting the congressman that afternoon in his office – decorated
with a framed poster of Ayn Rand – I ask him how he can so casually
defy leadership. “Why be for leadership?” Amash asks. “It’s more
popular in your district to be against leadership. Better just to
vote your constituency.”

But for all his fiery
rhetoric, Amash and his fellow insurgents know that keeping the
grassroots on their side is as much a matter of survival as of
principle. Thanks to the efforts of groups like DeMint’s to give it
a top-down structure, the Tea Party is no longer a ragtag army.
Regimented troops can now be marshaled to the barricades within
minutes. The phones in Amash’s office have been ringing off the
hook because the Senate Conservatives Fund has sent an e-mail blast
instructing activists – including the signers of the Dontfundit.com petition –
to bombard the phones of 29 of the most extreme House members to
demand they oppose the Cantor Plan. The group even threatens to
“recruit and fund a primary challenger” to House Rules Committee
chairman Pete Sessions if he aids leadership in bringing a vote to
the floor. Sessions, who has served in the House since 1997, has a
lifetime score of 97 percent from the American Conservatives Union.
But SCF labels him a “Texas RINO” – Republican in Name Only –
adding, “We can’t sit back and let wishy-washy Republicans like
Pete Sessions destroy our freedoms.”

That
evening on the House floor, McCarthy, the majority whip, is
prowling for votes. The Cantor Plan is in full meltdown mode. But
McCarthy is all smiles and buddy punches to the shoulders. Behind
the scenes, Jordan has turned on leadership with familiar vigor and
is whipping to hold his opposition bloc together. For Jordan and
his outside allies, the task at hand is not even that difficult. A
determined minority in the House today can command powers of
obstruction far greater than even the filibuster in the Senate. The
big, strategic votes in the House are party-line affairs.
Leadership needs 218 supporters to even bring a vote to the floor.
To block the Cantor Plan, Jordan and his outside allies need to
pick off just 17 defections, or fewer than 10 percent of RSC
members.

Outside Cantor’s Capitol suite, a sense
of doom is setting in. The majority leader’s communications chief
had insisted to Rolling Stone just days
earlier that “this is not a hard place to govern.” Now he looks
like he might literally start pulling out his hair. Cantor emerges
from his office looking shellshocked. He flashes a campaign smile
and is whisked away.

Less than 36 hours after it
was announced, the Cantor Plan is dead. Though McCarthy’s team
won’t share its vote count, the opposition pegs the “nay” block at
50 to 80 votes. “They weren’t close,” says Kentucky freshman Tom
Massie with a smile. Why were so many members insistent on a
do-or-die fight over Obamacare? “There’s a lack of trust between
the conference and the leadership on this issue,” Massie says. “If
our members genuinely believed that our leadership does want to
defund Obamacare – and is willing to stake some political capital
on that effort – then we’d entertain other ways of achieving
that.”

Tom Cole, a member of the House
leadership from Oklahoma, is furious at the newly elected senators
and outside groups that forced this fight on the House: “Most of
those guys never served over here and didn’t help create the
Republican majority over here in the House – but they are certainly
ready to lead it.” He’s even more angry at the stupidity of the
strategy to threaten a government shutdown. “Look, I’m open to
anything that would stop Obamacare. Kill it. Slow it down,” Cole
says. “I just don’t want to put a gun to my own head and say,
‘Repeal it or I’m gonna shoot!’ That’s what the argument is about
right now.”

But the following week, House
leaders conceded to the demands of the defundistas. They put a
continuing resolution vote on the floor that affirmatively defunded
Obamacare. No tricks, no gimmicks. The GOP House members passed it
with 230 votes – loading the gun.

Americans are
used to rRepublican-led houses running on near-martial discipline.
“A couple of years ago, the speaker and majority leader, they had
all the power,” says Freedomworks’ Kibbe. “They don’t anymore.” The
50-year-old Tea Party leader does not look like your standard GOP
operative. He wears hipster glasses and Diesel jeans and has
pencil-thin sideburns that jut across his cheeks. The House today,
he says with a wry smile, is “beautiful chaos.”

The old Republican command-and-control structure ran on
cash. “It was a patronage system,” says a GOP aide. “Raise money
for the [campaign] committee, and get put on a good [House]
committee that lets you squeeze lobbyists for more money.” Members
with the greatest talent at raising cash could hope to be plucked
from the back bench and placed on a leadership track. The current
House leaders are all products of that old machine. But the system
that made these men powerful has been disrupted. “They don’t have
the same levers that previous leaders had,” says a GOP strategist
who will be involved in the 2014 midterms, “to intimidate or coerce
the conference to move in step.”

The irony is
that the Republican Party brought the state of affairs on
itself.

Boehner gained the speaker’s gavel by
agreeing to reforms that would weaken the power of the office. In
the aftermath of Tom DeLay’s criminal indictment in 2005 for
laundering corporate cash to Texas campaigns (his conviction was
overturned this fall), Boehner campaigned for minority leader as a
reformer. In 2010, Speaker Boehner put teeth to his promises,
banning pork-barrel projects in appropriations bills. The reform
was logically consistent for a party that had made “wasteful
Washington spending” its bête noire. But the speaker himself has
bemoaned the loss of leverage on must-pass legislation. “It’s made
my job a lot more difficult,” Boehner has said. “I’ve got no
grease.”

Back in 2010, old-school Republicans,
hungry to return to power, cheered on the Tea Party insurgency. But
what was once seen as an electoral blessing is now understood as a
governing curse. “Most of these Tea Party folks think that
government is obscenely out of control and that the only way to get
it back in line is to draw a hard line,” says the GOP strategist.
In the past, pressure from the business community could force House
hard-liners to embrace ideologically unpalatable compromises like
the TARP bailout. But the sway of K Street and the Chamber of
Commerce is much diminished among these radicals. “In the past,
Boehner could call a lobbyist and say, ‘I need you to lean on this
member,'” says a fellow at a right-wing think tank who asked to
remain anonymous. That kind of pressure is actually
counter­productive with new arrivals who got elected in their
primaries by denouncing lobbyists, business PACs and the D.C.
establishment.

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Partisan gerrymandering of
2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing
congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its
efforts on protecting House incumbents – making their districts as
red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced
a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular
vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for
Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But
Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House.
“Gerrymandering saved them,” says Larry Sabato, director of the
Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is
vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack
Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data
savant Nate Silver calls “landslide districts” – districts that are
20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has
swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago.

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Members from these über-safe
districts don’t fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat
in the general election. They dread a well-funded primary opponent
running to their right. “You’ve got very small numbers of people
who vote in GOP primaries,” says Bartlett, who served in the Reagan
administration. “It doesn’t take very many of these Tea Party
people to show up to find out you’re on your ass.”

To keep this threat fresh in members’ minds, the Club for
Growth recently launched a campaign called “Primary My
Congressman!” that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe
seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. “The
Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party,” said Steve
LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio.
“The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved
is the number of Democrats in office.”

Republicans were also ecstatic when the Supreme Court’s
Citizens United decision undermined the system
of regulated campaign finance. But this boon to the wealthy donor
class has become the bane of those trying to forge party unity. Now
donors can microtarget the faction of Republicanism that suits them
best. “There’s a difference between rich Republicans used to
working through K Street and the guy who just sold his plumbing
business and happens to be a total libertarian winger,” says the
think-tank fellow. The rise of outside money has made a mockery of
what used to be the leadership’s biggest stick: “If leadership
says, ‘We’re not going to fund you if you don’t vote with us,’ the
members laugh,” the strategist says. “‘Keep your $10,000. I’m going
to take $200,000 from an outside group.’ Or better yet, ‘I’m going
to start my own Super PAC and send out e-mails about how John
Boehner is standing in the way of our shared values.'”

In the last election, for instance, John Ramsey, a
21-year-old Ron Paul fan from Texas, used money he inherited from
his grandparents to create the Liberty for All Super PAC. He funded
the winning campaign of libertarian Kentucky freshman Massie with
more than $629,000 in independent expenditures. As a result, Massie
– a gregarious, MIT-educated 42-year-old – is a party of one, free
to buck GOP leadership. Indeed, in his very first week in office,
Massie joined in the coup effort that nearly stripped Boehner of
his speakership.

The
chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the
two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For
Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful
rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that
rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these
politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the
interests of the party’s financial backers. In the emerging party
of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only
the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can
force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the small­government
promises they make to their constituents back home.

These two schools of governing can’t, ultimately, be
reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning
every possible government choke point into a high-stakes
confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield
and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to
activists in Dallas, “If you have an impasse, one side or the other
has to blink. How do we win? Don’t
blink.

“The elites have different
agendas than the rank and file,” says Bartlett, the former Reagan
official. “Your average Tea Party people may be content to have
gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the
lobbyists – they need stuff.” And people in that camp have a lot
riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

Boehner
and Cantor have learned to speak the language of the Tea Party –
the majority leader more fluently than the speaker – but their real
job is to keep the old Republican-patronage machine humming. In
their political bloodlines and in their donor networks, both
Boehner and Cantor are deeply connected to the politics of Rove.
Boehner’s signature accomplishment was steering George W. Bush’s
education initiative No Child Left Behind to passage – a law that
Needham decries as “a gargantuan federalization of education” and
“an anathema to conservatives.” For his part, Cantor was a key
member of the 2003 Tom DeLay whip team that twisted arms in an
infamous all-night session required to pass the deficit-financed
Medicare prescription-drug plan, a Rove-driven gift to Big Pharma
and the most sweeping expansion of the program since the days of
Lyndon Johnson.

Looting Main
Street

Boehner is renowned as a
“Chamber of Commerce Republican” – and the campaign-finance data
are unambiguous: In the 2012 election cycle, Boehner was the
House’s top recipient of campaign cash from 34 different
industries, from hedge funds and investment firms to coal mining,
student­loan companies, hospitals, nursing homes and Big Tobacco.
He was also the top recipient of campaign cash from lobbyists
themselves, raking in $393,000 according to data compiled by the
Center for Responsive Politics. In D.C., the speaker’s clubby
network of staffers and lobbyists is known as “Boehnerland,” and
its members include heavy hitters for Citigroup, UPS, Altria, AmEx,
Akin Gump and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
“The Boehner folks barbecue on Sunday together, they go on
vacations together, they name their kids after each other,” says
the former leadership aide.

Although he’s
positioned himself as a kindred spirit of House insurgents, and has
even joined the RSC, Cantor is perhaps more deeply knitted into the
Republican establishment than Boehner is. It was Cantor’s
prodigious fund­raising talents that elevated him to the fast track
in 2003, when he became chief-­deputy whip after just one term in
Congress. Married to a former Goldman Sachs VP, he speaks the
language of the investment class and is said to sell financiers on
the “return on investment” of their political donations to the
party. He’s been a fierce defender of the hedge-fund loophole that
taxes the income of top investors at less than the rate of their
secretaries – once arguing that taxing “carried interest” at normal
rates would hurt “the average blue-jean-wearing American.” Over his
career, he’s raised more than $2.4 million from the investment
community.

Invasion of the Home
Snatchers

The drama in the GOP House
used to center around the palace intrigue between Cantor and
Boehner. The rift was real – but exacerbated by hyperloyal
staffers, in particular, Boehner’s former chief of staff, Barry
Jackson, who has since decamped for K Street. By all accounts, the
speaker and the majority leader now enjoy a smoother working
relationship. “The guys agree on most policy,” says the former
leadership aide. “I mean, there’s very little dividing line on
that.” The two men even share the same benefactor: The
Cantor-affiliated Super PAC YG Action Fund received $5 million from
casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson last cycle – the same amount that
the Boehner-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund got.

The budget fight produced a
worst-case hybrid of Republican governance. The forces of DeMint
succeeded in grinding the gears of Washington to a halt – provoking
the first government shutdown in 17 years. But not before the
forces of Rove had whittled a big, existential battle over the size
of government down to a squabble over poll-tested tweaks to the
president’s health care law.

In the end,
Republicans did not shut down the government for a full repeal of
Obama­care. Rather, they furloughed nearly 1 million federal
employees, shuttered national parks and brought other core
functions of government to a halt, because they couldn’t persuade
Democrats to agree to a one-year delay in the mandate that
Americans buy insurance – or face a $95 fine. Said New York Rep.
Peter King, one of the few centrists left in the House GOP, “[This]
whole thing has become madness.”

The madness has
also ratcheted up the danger of a catastrophic federal default,
looming on October 17th. Left to their own devices,­ House radicals
won’t pull themselves back from this brink: “If we miss the
deadline, it’s no big crisis,” RSC member John Fleming of Louisiana
told Rolling Stone. “It can be used politically.” But if Boehner
sidelines the Tea Party contingent and defuses the debt-ceiling
crisis with the help of Nancy Pelosi and Democratic votes, it’s
likely to be his last act as speaker.

Even the
men who put this chaos in motion have admitted they don’t have a
strategy for the endgame. They just wanted to put the ball in play.
Speaking on September 19th, after the House had all but guaranteed
a federal shutdown, Jordan invoked the coach of the NFL’s New
England Patriots. “Even Belichick,” he said, “doesn’t script out
the whole game.”

This story is from
the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.