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Liberal and most center-right commentators labeled the Cruz crusaders as hopelessly naive and destructive of their own party. But conservatives beyond the Beltway (and a few inside) saw the Cruz obstinacy as a necessary public rejection of bipartisanship as practiced since the days of President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 budget compromise with Congress‘ Democratic leaders, when he broke his “no new taxes” pledge and accepted the Democrats’ demand to cut spending by $2 for every $1 in tax increases. The GOP kept its part of the bargain; the Democrats didn’t, but they still got $137 billion in tax increases from 1991 through 1995 that they originally had wanted.

Government grew faster under the elder Mr. Bush than it had at any time since President Johnson’s War on Poverty years.

The GOP rebels in Congress have been doing a slow burn over the failure of their party to block or even slow government growth, which has been faster under Mr. Obama than under President George W. Bush, who increased spending more than any of his six predecessors, including Johnson. And it wasn’t just entitlements. In his eight years in the White House, the younger Mr. Bush increased discretionary spending by an eye-popping 49 percent.

Some conservative Republican strategists around the country, including some surprisingly prominent ones, have been saying privately that things came to a head in the past few weeks because the GOP had shown itself to be so weak that it was bordering on irrelevance, even while controlling one house of Congress.

True, Republicans staged a mini-showdown over the debt ceiling two years ago, today’s GOP House and Senate rebels acknowledge. They wanted the Democrats to agree to a “cut, cap and balance” agenda on spending and the federal deficit. The Republican got some cuts and caps. It was not what they considered enough, but certainly it was more than if they had not used their leverage.

Since that modest accomplishment, they had done nothing to block what they see as the Democrats’ ongoing drive to socialize the economy and increase dependency on the government.

The boat-rockers among the House GOP’s majority and the Cruz-Lee-Paul faction among the Senate GOP’s minority decided that with Obamacare about to be implemented, they had better at least try to do something. They knew they could not win, but it would at least show they understood the nation was about to pass the point of no return in another major advance toward what they call European-style socialism by funding the Affordable Care Act.

The problem from these GOP rebels’ viewpoint was that the majority of the Washington GOP establishment had no fight in them. Moderate GOP leaders were warriors in the cause of limited government no more — if they ever were.

That left some rebels torn over strategy, inclined, as one put it privately, “to cruise with Ted” but at the same time thinking, “It would be nice to walk out on a limb and not have the Surrender Caucus behind you sawing it off before you even get started.”

Political fallout

Act 5 of the shutdown drama this week leaves unclear just what was accomplished. Do enough GOP voters see the party as having reasserted its relevance, at least somewhat, to win in 2014 and in 2016?

However worthy Mr. Cruz’s goals, Republicans close to the action on Capitol Hill say the freshman Texan’s tactics have annoyed beyond redemption almost all of his GOP colleagues with what they see as his grandstanding in preparation for a 2016 presidential campaign.

Many of these same Republicans say Mr. Paul, also a probable 2016 nomination contender, did not desert Mr. Cruz in holding out for significant concessions from Democrats. At the same time, the Kentucky Republican made it clear that he thought a government shutdown was bad for his party and his country. He also refrained from attacks on the leadership. How that plays with donors in 2016 is unknown at this point, partisans of both men say.

A surprisingly number of prominent Republicans are saying that if the GOP loses the 2016 presidential election, the party will go the way of the Whigs — or formally split into a moderate party and a conservative party.

“Those Republican rebels in Congress may have demonstrated, at least until the shutdown ended, that there are some GOP leaders still standing for principles and understanding spending and Obamacare are moral issues of the day,” said Solomon Yue, a founder of the RNC’s Conservative Caucus. “If we are not willing to fight on those issues, Republicans could become Whigs. Therefore, the shutdown drama not only re-energized our demoralized base but also preserved our GOP army for the fight in 2014 and beyond as far as our grass roots are concerned.”

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