October 18, 2013
FILE - In this May 28, 2013 file photo, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks during the signing of a water fund bill, in Austin, Texas. Opponents of Lt. Gov. For Republicans eager to lead Texas after Gov. Rick Perry finally steps aside in 2014, there’s one easy way to describe their campaign blunders so far: Oops. Dewhurst, facing a fierce GOP primary challenge for his seat, was trying to show his conservative mettle at a debate this week when he said he doesn’t put Democrats in charge of “critical committees.” Among his Senate panels helmed by Democrats: Veteran Affairs. Unforced errors by GOP front-runners to replace Gov. Rick Perry, when he steps aside in 2014 have given Texas Democrats, a little hope in winning a statewide office for the first time in 20 years. But as they wait for Davis’ expected Oct. 3 announcement that she will run, they’re left without a candidate to pounce on their rivals’ missteps. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

How bad is it these days in the GOP?

Step away from Washington for a minute, and take a look at what’s going on right now in the Republican primary for Texas lieutenant governor, where the candidates are debating … hmmm … all those uninsured Texans? The massive drought? Jobs?

Nope.

The 17th Amendment.

Yeah, that’s the one that provided for direct election of senators. If you’re a political junkie you probably are vaguely aware that it’s a tea party fetish, but it’s apparently more than just something that one of the goofier speakers dressed in costume and a funny hat might mention; it’s actually smack dab in the middle of an important election (for those not up on their Texas basics, the lieutenant governor is a big deal in the Alamo State). Nor is it just a fringe position; incumbent David Dewhurst joins one of his three challengers in supporting repeal, while one of the tea party challengers dissents because without it, Ted Cruz might not have been elected the Senate.

Regardless of the merits of repeal (and there are few; direct election was a good idea), there’s something really striking about this. I mean, beyond the obvious point that the overwhelming majority of the electorate is apt to think this is not only a terrible idea, but a totally crackpot idea.

No, what’s striking above all is how purely symbolic this one is as an “issue.” After all, not only is it purely procedural, but it’s something which has no chance of happening and which statewide elected officials have little role in anyway, or at least not until it gets through Congress.

So what’s happening here? Pretty basic: the key thing within the GOP isn’t “establishment” vs. “tea party,” but a general, party-wide obsession with being a True Conservative in a party where pretty much every party actor agrees on matters of ideology and on specific issues of public policy, at least to the extent they pay any attention to those things. The result? A constant search among radicals for ideas that can separate them from everyone else (and thus prove the radicals to be the True Conservatives), along with rapid adoption of those idea by everyone else.

The fact that repealing the 17th Amendment is an unpopular crackpot idea is, then, a feature, not a bug — because the more nutty the idea, the harder it is for regular conservatives to adopt it. Although Dewhurst, having lost to Cruz, seems to have figured out how to play the game.

Now, apply that story and its logic to the crackpot idea of shutting down the government until the Democrats surrender the Affordable Care Act, and I think you can see what’s going on.