THE EFFECTS OF PLANNED TEA PARTY ‘AMBUSHES’ IN 2012…. I tend to avoid news speculating about the 2012 cycle, because it’s just too far away to have any real meaning. But the Wall Street Journal has an important article this morning about the elections two years from now, which I suspect will have a significant impact on policymaking between now and then.

Tea-party activists, keen to build on their success toppling GOP incumbents in primaries this year, are already targeting more Republican veterans in the 2012 election.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, already has a conservative GOP primary opponent. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Indiana) have all drawn fire from the right wing of their party.

Tea-party activists have put these and other incumbents on notice that the anti-establishment sentiment defining this year’s politics will not end on Election Day 2010.

There’s simply no way to say with any confidence whether any of these incumbents have anything to worry about. We don’t know whether Tea Party nonsense will fizzle over the next two years; whether their potential challengers will been seen as credible; what the state of the economy will be; etc. But after GOP primaries this year in Alaska, Utah, Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Kentucky, and elsewhere, it’s safe to assume incumbent Republicans of the sort-of-reasonable variety will have noticed the threat posed by hysterical zealots.

And in the short term, the mere possibility of these primary challenges will, I suspect, have a significant effect on how Congress operates, regardless of how many seats Republicans win in the midterms.

During this year’s primary season, much of the talk focused on “anti-incumbent” attitudes, but that was an imprecise analysis. What we actually saw, over and over again in GOP primaries, was the willingness of the Republican base — everywhere — to punish those open to compromise and constructive policymaking.

Jonathan Bernstein had a very good piece on this in August: “[T]hese primaries are sending a very strong message to GOP pols about the dangers of ever allowing any space to develop between themselves and movement conservatives.”

Bob Bennett lost in Utah, in large part because his willingness to work with a Democrat on health care policy was deemed unacceptable to the party’s base. Bob Inglis was trounced in South Carolina because he expressed a willingness to work with people he disagreed with. Florida’s Charlie Crist and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter were driven out of the party altogether because they considered it part of their responsibilities to play a constructive role in policymaking. We saw Mike Castle, Lisa Murkowski, and others face similar problems.

It reached the point in August at which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cruised to an easy primary win after assuring Republicans he would not cooperate with anyone who doesn’t agree entirely with everything he already believes.

There can be little doubt about Tea Partiers talking about this now, more than two years before the 2012 elections: they need to instill fear before any further lawmaking. It’s important, in other words, for Corker, Snowe, Hatch, and Lugar to know that if they play a constructive role in the Senate, working on public policy and considering compromise measures — in other words, if they do their jobs — their base will be watching, and that base is inclined to destroy their careers unless they vote like robotic conservative obstructionists.

Republican voters have sent a message to Republican lawmakers open to constructive lawmaking: don’t do it. Party activists don’t want responsible leaders who’ll try to solve problems; they want hard-right ideologues. No exceptions.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.