It is easy to write off intra-party face-offs as a dispute over “tactics,” but the fight between the shutdown squad and the rest of GOP lawmakers over keeping the government open this fall is not merely a tactical tiff over how to eliminate Obamacare. It goes to the heart of competing visions for what it means to govern and what elected officials should be doing. And the philosophies lead to very different results for the GOP in the long term.

Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Senators in the minority may reason that they personally have nothing to lose by threatening not to fund the government unless discretionary spending for Obamacare is eliminated. (They are mum when it comes to the real meat of Obamacare funding, which is in entitlement legislation.) For them, the exercise is not about governance; it is about increasing the temperature among true believers and separating themselves from those “squishes” who think they have some obligation to keep government running. Perhaps they are hopelessly naïve in assuming the face-off will be good for the GOP. Or maybe they are hopelessly cynical about ever getting the majority and simply want to raise their own profile and cash in with the right-wing money machine.

On the other side of the divide are Republican lawmakers, candidates, operatives, interest groups, donors and onlookers who see this as madness. The stunt itself is illogical, say the realists. (Obamacare will never be sacrificed and the gambit does nothing about discretionary spending.)

The GOP, if it goes down this road, will only distract the public from the Obamacare meltdown as one section of the statute after another proves to be unworkable; worse, a shutdown gambit will once again put the GOP in the crazy camp and let the president off the hook for his legislative debacle. The realists think they’ve got a shot at winning the majority in the Senate in 2014, provided they don’t create a backlash against Republicans and give voters the idea they are unfit to govern.

To be blunt, the shutdown crowd, if they have their way, would doom the GOP to oblivion and prompt Hillary Clinton to start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office. Their mode of politics by destruction and serial tests of ideological purity does not garner support from a majority of U.S. voters. Those who think it does mistake the callers to right-wing talk shows for representative of the country at large.

The realists have their own problems, starting with the absence of a defined alternative to Obamacare. But that is solvable provided some wonks in the ranks come up with a credible plan that Republicans in Congress can more or less support. Their main challenge is to keep the keys to the car away from the reckless drivers and stay on the path to victories in 2014.

Of late, Senate and House leadership have begun speaking out against the shutdown nonsense, and when you start counting noses it’s not clear that the shutdown squad ever had or will ever have sufficient numbers to pull off a shutdown. The realists now need to couple their refusal to go along with the shutdown madness with an explanation of how they plan to get rid of Obamacare. They can’t simply rely on a critique — however compelling – of the doomed shutdown strategy.

This requires some brutal honesty. Obamacare is falling apart and may suffer cardiac arrest when it’s time for the exchanges to open for business. Conservatives can highlight that by holding hearings, going out to talk to their voters and running a media campaign all designed to pressure Democrats. Perhaps they can split off some Democrats and sow dissension among their opponents’ ranks. But the only way of getting rid of Obamacare is to elect a GOP majority in the Senate, keep the House and win back the White House. Whatever and whoever can help them accomplish that should be bolstered; whatever makes those electoral wins less likely should be rebuffed. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.