Today’s David Brooks column is, no question about it, remarkable. It would be remarkable if he stuck to attacking Republicans for, as Ezra Klein has been saying, refusing to take “yes” for an answer. But one could chalk that up to disagreements on tactics (and, remember, while there is some risk to the economy in letting the apocalypse approach, we haven’t actually seen Republicans force a cataclysm; much of what’s happening could still be just bargaining and posturing).

But for Brooks to go after Republicans this harshly, saying that “The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name” and, even more harshly, that “The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency” — well, that’s a big deal. You can be sure that Brooks didn’t take that step lightly.

And yet the companion piece to Brooks’s column is a reported piece by Jennifer Steinhauer about possible primary challenges to first-term Tea Party Members of the House from frustrated conservatives convinced that they’ve been sold out already. Now, I have to say that in my reading of the piece, Steinhauer doesn’t really nail it. There is one potential challenger who claims to be more conservative than one Member, and plenty of allusion to “heated chatter,” but not everything she reports seems to fit. For example, she begins with the possibility that Zach Wamp’s son may be challenging a new Member from Tennessee — but is Weston Wamp an anti-establishment or conservative challenge to Chuck Fleishmann? It’s vaguely implied, but there are lots of reasons a challenger might take on an incumbent in a primary.

What matters here, however, isn’t what actually happens in these primaries (after all, virtually all incumbents will survive them), but what’s in the heads of Republican Members of Congress. And for that, it’s possible that the ambiguities and unclear interpretations in Steinhauer’s story reflect accurately a focus on primaries and Tea Party short leashes that dominate the thinking of those Republicans.

All of which means that, at this point, it doesn’t really matter how many establishment figures defect or how harshly they complain: as long as Republican politicians are convinced that their main vulnerability is primary challenges from the right, they’re going to get crazier and crazier.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.