Sequestration, the arbitrary budget cuts that supposedly no one wanted, began taking effect last week, and it's hard not to notice that Republican leaders seem pleased with themselves.
Speaker of the House John Boehner professes little interest in a deal to mitigate the cuts; he has more or less vowed to tie himself to the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol before he'll accede to any additional tax revenue -- including the sort of loophole closing that Republicans of a previous era (circa 2012) claimed they desired. Meanwhile, conservative troops are cheering.
"The sequester and winning that fight -- however you define what winning means -- is critical for the party," said one-time Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed to the New York Times.
For much of the past four years, Republicans defined "winning" as stopping President Barack Obama from doing something, anything he wished to do. The merits of a particular case were usually irrelevant: Republicans simply sang, sharp and loud, "I'm against it," like a political band in which every member shares the last name Ramone.
Sequestration isn't exactly like that. The random slashing represents a genuine victory for the conservative movement. For them, cutting spending is no longer a means to an end -- efficiency, for example, or arguably even low taxes. It is the end. But the effort also confirms that Republicans increasingly view themselves less as a party vying for majority support than as a guerilla band operating in enemy-controlled territory.
To see just how hostile that terrain is, consider the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Feb. 21-24. The Republican effort to win hearts and minds has yielded the party a favorability reading of 29 positive/46 negative. Only 8 percent of adults express "very positive" feelings about the party (which may also help explain why ratings at Fox News have taken a dive recently -- the base is dispirited). The corresponding numbers for Democrats are 41/36, a net advantage over Republicans of 22 points (with 18 percent "very positive").
Democrats have a 22-point advantage on "looking out for the middle class" and an 18-point advantage on Medicare. After three years of Republican attacks on Obamacare, Democrats have a 16-point advantage on "dealing with health care." Despite a payroll tax hike in January, Democrats have a 3-point advantage on the traditional Republican turf of taxes and, amid high unemployment and slow growth, a 2-point advantage on the economy.
Having apparently ruled out making policy changes to win public support, Republicans appear resigned to guerilla warfare. Normal legislative channels are defunct: the debt ceiling, continuing resolutions, threats of government shut-downs and other manufactured crises are the vehicles by which policy is advanced and power is manifested. While this strategy has harmed the party brand overall, Republicans have a 6-point advantage on reducing the deficit and a 16-point advantage on "controlling government spending." For now, Republicans also have a whopping 26-point margin on "ensuring a strong national defense."
When guerillas blow up an electrical grid, it hobbles the government, of course. But it also may cut power to the guerillas' home village. That's pretty much what happened with sequestration, which forces sharp cuts in Pentagon spending along with domestic programs. Republicans generally oppose the defense cuts, but they're willing to endure some dark nights so long as lights are flickering dimly at the White House, too.
As others have noted, the general destructiveness is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich's efforts to wrest control of the House of Representatives from Democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s by making Congress an object of contempt. The only difference -- and it's not a minor one -- is that Republicans now control the House they seem so dedicated to blowing up.
It's increasingly difficult to discern a long-term political strategy behind these actions. But to the extent Republicans have reduced American politics to a fight over federal spending, they're winning.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)