As it became obvious last night that Republicans would have to cave on the shutdown, agree to a clean debt-ceiling increase and recognize (however reluctantly) that their stunt had actually made Obamacare more popular, the e-mails poured in.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaking on the Senate floor. (R-Tex.) (Associated Press) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaking on the Senate floor. (Associated Press)

From a GOP governor’s office: “If Ted Cruz didn’t exist the Democrats would
have been forced to create him.”

From a Virginia Republican: “These NBC [poll] numbers are staggering … 24 percent favorable rating for Republicans … 8 Point Dem lead on the generic ballot … I cannot figure out whether it is sad or hilarious that some on our side are shooting around emails proclaiming that Republicans are winning.”

The president, as many mainstream Republicans (and the House leadership) suspected, forced the GOP hardliners to reverse course on the shutdown, confident in the knowledge that the GOP would be suffering a grievous self-inflicted loss.

How grievous was highlighted in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, which, in addition to the numbers referenced above, found that Americans blamed the GOP for the shutdown by a 22-point margin (53 to 31 percent), a clear majority that dwarfed the 1995 shutdown numbers (only a 44 percent plurality then blamed the Republicans), which reflected a bad misstep for then-speaker Newt Gingrich. The GOP (24 percent) and tea party (21 percent) registered all-time lows in approval. Worse yet, 70 percent think Republicans are putting their personal agenda ahead of the country’s, and support for Obamacare ticked up seven points to 38 percent (although 43 percent still disapprove).

No single episode is the be-all and end-all in politics. No poll is definitive. We should not underestimate the ability of those who led the GOP into a box canyon to justify their actions. But this episode is, we certainly hope, an earthquake that will awaken lawmakers, voters, candidates and media on the right. If not dislodge certain players, it may at least reveal their fallacious political assumptions. Better yet, it can empower more rational voices who have been cowed by the right-wing.

If the GOP is lucky, lessons can be learned and behavior adjusted based on empirical results. Governing is an awesome responsibility, not an excuse for a personal joy ride, and more sober-minded leaders and members have an obligation to stand up to extremists and nuts who will do the country and the party great harm. The party at large does not think like right-wing talk show hosts, and assuming that Republicans and all voters do is a recipe for political failure.

The trio of freshmen Republicans who started the shutdown mania — Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — as well as those who belatedly joined in (e.g. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky) need to do some soul-searching, as do the voices that insisted these were the few true and stalwart Republicans. Voters should consider whether they are worthy of high office or even higher office. (Pols can certainly learn, grow and make amends.)

On the bright side, this, as one acerbic e-mailer put it, had “to be flushed out of the system” — the zeal for bad causes, confusing conservatism with radicalism, listening only to voices that tell you what you want to hear, the failure to appreciate that Americans are pragmatic and centrist in their politics. And the “this” is also the delusion that all government is bad and that public employees are dishonorable; neither is true, and those who take glee in proclaiming otherwise should be viewed skeptically.

The good news is that this splash of cold water is happening in plenty of time for Republicans to make wise choices for 2014 and 2016 and for sober, effective leaders to emerge who can take on a much-needed course correction. The governors certainly are one source of talent for 2016. But for now, concentrating on governing well, picking viable candidates and finding ways to appeal to ordinary Americans through conservative policies would be advisable. Things can change on a dime, we know. But last night they sure took a dramatic turn.