WASHINGTON — On the eve of the Values Voter Summit — an annual pep rally for devout social conservatives and activists — the Wall Street Journal and NBC News released a poll that threatened to cast a shadow over the gathering.
The findings, which set Twitter ablaze when they were published Thursday evening, painted a dismal picture for the state of the GOP: Americans blamed Republicans for the government shutdown by a 22-point margin, and the party's favorability rating had sunk to the lowest level in the history of the poll. As the crisis wore on Friday — with frenzied Republican leadership working to find a face-saving way out — reporters descended on the conference in Washington to find out what conservative activists thought now of the mess they'd created for their party.
The answer: They don't particularly care.
Asked whether he was concerned that the shutdown fight would do lasting damage to the public perception of the GOP, conference attendee Edward Bartlett shrugged. He said he was a fan of Sen. Ted Cruz, and admired the Tea Party hero's unwavering push to defund Obamacare. If his principled stand hurts the establishment GOP, so be it.
"I consider myself more of a conservative than... a straight Republican," said Bartlett.
Daniel Schlueter, a high school history teacher from southern Maryland who was dressed in the traditional colonialist-inspired Tea Party uniform, said he felt no loyalty to the Republican Party. He was upset with the GOP's dismissive attitude toward libertarians in 2012.
"I'm more conservative, that's where my basis lies — that, and general disgust for the weak-kneed, go-along-get-along, RINO Republicans. The dinosaurs; we don't need them," Schlueter said.
This pervasive apathy about the status and strength of the Republican Party is one of the more damaging products of the GOP's fracturing during the Obama years. Without a leader to rally around, or a consistent set of victories to serve as a model for future success, the party's various factions all seem to operate in separate realities where the version of the Republican Party they most dislike is the primary villain.
To the Tea Party, it is obvious that the GOP's failures are the fault of the "surrender caucus." To the most moderate establishmentarians, the party has been overrun by right-wing "wacko birds." Libertarians are convinced the party is an intellectually bankrupt institution that ignores their big ideas, while the religious right watches in dismay as party elites abandon the Judeo-Christian values they hold dear.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, laid out one of the right's enduring theories about why the GOP has struggled to win national elections.
"If you see what happened in 2008 and 2012, the Republicans lost when it came to the presidency in part because the base was disconnected from the party — they were really, in many ways, Democrat Lite," Perkins told BuzzFeed. "I think what you see here is there are some bold, bright lines being drawn, and as you can see here, we're not lacking for enthusiasm."
Indeed, one of the biggest applause lines of the day came when Cruz called for House Republicans to keep "standing strong" in its refusal to reopen the government until changes are made to Obamacare. The antagonists standing in the way of this goal were Democrats, yes, but also wishy-washy Republicans.
All this has added up to a party whose members feel little ownership for its success — and sometimes seem to be rooting for its failure. While people like John Boehner might be fretting over the results of the WSJ/NBC poll, the conservative voters who sent the Tea Party to Washington are hardly giving it a second thought. Their loyalty is to the movement: the party is just a disposable tool to accomplish their goals.