We'll make a tentative assessment: President Obama's famous prediction that the Republican "fever may break" after his reelection got the trigger wrong but the eventuality right. The fever — finally — has broken, and it's possible that cooler heads could prevail all the way until Republican primaries in a few months.
Why do we feel confident in making this assessment? There are few more pristine embodiments of that fever — the Tea Party-led push for dogmatic opposition to anything that even seemed like higher spending — than Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Bachmann is one of several of the most fervently conservative members of the House. And here's what she had to say about her party's efforts to figure out a concession to demand from President Obama exchange for lifting the debt ceiling: "You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them. My assessment is that most of us don’t think it’s the time to fight."
This from the congresswoman who declared that October's shutdown was "exactly what we wanted, and we got it." Bachmann was joined in her willingness to allow a clean increase to the debt ceiling (a move that will allow the government to borrow money to pay debt it has already incurred) by other conservative members of the House Republican caucus. Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador has repeatedly said to simply raise the debt ceiling and move on; earlier this week he said, "We should bring up a clean debt ceiling, let the Democrats pass it, and just move on. Our constituents are fed up with the political theater." And conservative Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who helped lead an insurgency against Speaker John Boehner's leadership last year: "It’s going to end up being clean anyway. I don’t see anything they can put on the table that I would support as some sort of tradeoff."
There are still hold-outs, of course, a slightly elevated temperature embodied in a senator from Texas whose name you can guess. (His name, coincidentally, rhymes with "red blues.") But that's what happens when fevers break: it takes a while for the body to cool back down.
After the GOP's shutdown capitulation last October, there was a wave of similar "The fever is broken!" stories. (For example.) When Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray announced a bipartisan budget compromise that passed both houses of Congress, The New York Times' Paul Krugman made a similar declaration. Both points were perhaps premature. The October reversal was the equivalent of the party leadership taking the Republican caucus to the emergency room for a massive infusion of antibiotics, not a sign of improved health. December was mostly under the radar; activists weren't paying close attention.
This fight, at a moment with primaries on the horizon and not happening during the holiday season, seems more like the real thing. Conservatives, given the chance to come up with idea for an issue to hold hostage to a debt ceiling increase, couldn't or didn't reach consensus, and then seemed to shrug at just giving up the idea. Even the idea that Republicans must reach majority consensus before agreeing to a policy — the famed Hastert Rule that kept Boehner in knots throughout 2013 — appears to have fallen by the wayside. The fever broke.
Why didn't the fever break when Obama won reelection as he predicted? After all, the Tea Party/hyper-conservative movement was largely a reaction to his presidency and the after effects of the spending during the administration of George W. Bush. Two possible reasons. The first is that, as Boehner was eager to remind people in the run-up to the shutdown, the House Republicans kept the majority in that election, and most members were reelected. That's a stamp of approval. But also, most conservatives voted for Mitt Romney but didn't see him as their candidate. Obama beat the establishment guy, that was the choice presented to the country.
Last October, Obama beat the conservatives. Badly. It didn't take a lot; he just had to let the fever grow and grow and grow until it needed medical intervention. When Labrador says people don't want "theater," he means that he recognizes that the October battle was largely unwinnable and therefore not worth embarking upon since it was all for show. Bachmann declared the willingness to move past this current debt ceiling fight as "pragmatism," not a word that one generally associates with Bachmann or Tea Party die-hards.
All of that said, this doesn't mean that the fever will stay broken. Bachmann isn't running for reelection, and upcoming primaries are almost certain to shift some of her peers back to the right, getting that fever roiling. That's the thing about fevers: just because you recover once doesn't mean you're not going to get sick again.
Correction: This article originally said that the Republicans gained seats in 2012; they lost eight.