Brian Beutler and Kevin Drum have decided that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat doesn’t matter after all. Beutler focuses mainly on the electoral effects this year, and he’s correct about that. But Drum goes farther:

When you look at the broad picture, you can’t pretend that Cantor’s loss overwhelms everything else. It doesn’t. It’s one primary, and it counts as one primary. And that means the broad picture is about the same as everyone thought a week ago: the Republican Party is becoming more conservative; the tea party largely controls the party’s agenda in Congress; and occasionally there are going to be some primary upsets. As near as I can tell, there haven’t been any more this year than in 2010 or 2012 …

It doesn’t mean there’s an upheaval in the GOP that’s changed the face of American politics. That upheaval is four years old, and we already know all about it.

I see this view a lot, and it needs some pushback. Yes, the House Republicans, and the Republican Party in general, are monolithically conservative — and it’s true that “the tea party largely controls the party’s agenda in Congress.”

But there’s plenty of room for greater and lesser degrees of radicalism. And those fluctuations can matter a lot. After all, the House hasn’t actually impeached the president, or forced a debt limit breach, and as of a week ago the Republicans didn’t appear to be on course to shut down the government again. I agree with Jack Balkin that the Cantor loss makes the former a little more likely — and Stan Collender is correct that the Cantor loss makes destructive budget wars a lot more likely.

The defeats of Bob Bennett and Dick Lugar (and others) already had sent a strong signal to Republican politicians that they needed to emulate John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and Mitch McConnell. As I said last week, that meant rushing to tighten their embrace of the loudest, nuttiest, most radical self-proclaimed True Conservatives.

So why does this one still matter? For one thing, because Cantor’s opponent David Brat didn’t have much support from high-powered national groups. That extends the threat; incumbents can’t feel safe even if they are able to manage those very visible organizations. For another, because Cantor, even more than Bennett and Lugar, hadn’t done anything “wrong” by what used to be normal conservative standards (see Greg Sargent on Cantor and immigration). There’s also the earthquake analogy I talked about last week. Sure, everyone in California is prepared for earthquakes … but surely they become a lot more aggressive about their preparations once one happens.

I think we can go a little farther, however. The positions and tactics the radicals are pushing are not natural ones for politicians to take — for example, the belief that large chunks of mainstream science are a conspiracy against the oil companies or that seemingly suicidal tactics such as shutting down the government without any leverage are a bright idea. Maintaining those beliefs must take a lot of energy. And without constant replenishing, there is almost certainly going to be some backsliding – just as there was after Republicans got rid of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Congressional Republicans will remain very conservative. But the extent of the radicals’ influence over them is constantly up for grabs. The Cantor defeat is almost certainly a solid blow pushing them in the direction of the radicals, and one that will last for longer than most.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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