Let's cast our minds forward a few weeks, to after the shutdown/default crisis is over. At that point, the 2014 off-year elections will be only a year away. And what will the lasting effect of this episode be? Maybe not all that much. After all, the party of the sitting president almost always loses seats in off-year elections, the big exception being 1998, when the electorate turned on Republicans after the spectacle of impeachment. The shutdown/default is a very big deal, and the GOP will certainly suffer for it, but it's not that big. Even if things turn out as badly as possible for the Republicans, chances are that they'd only lose a few seats in the House—not enough to lose control—because of the way the district lines are drawn (it was Republicans' great good fortune to have an enormous win at the state level in 2010, the year before post-census redistricting took place). I could be wrong about this, of course (here's a suggestion by Sam Wang that losing the House is a real possibility for them). But I doubt it. So where does that leave us?
For starters, it leaves the Republicans with a real 2016 problem. The key dynamic of this crisis is the fact that individual Republican members of Congress from conservative districts are willing to do something that is decidedly not in the interests of the national party, even as it's comfortably in their own ideological and even electoral interests. But in a presidential race, the party has to appeal to the whole country. We have no idea who the nominee of the party will be, but chances are it'll be either someone directly implicated in this episode of kamikaze politics, or someone who has to spend the primary campaign convincing Republican activists that he's indistinguishable from those who are, in much the same manner as Mitt Romney did. At this point it's almost impossible to imagine a moderate like John Huntsman getting the nomination. So what you could have is a party stubbornly alienated from the national electorate, but stubbornly able to keep control of the House of Representatives.
Which would mean that we just go on in this current vein. The GOP's descent into madness helps Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or Martin O'Malley become president, and stalemate politics in Congress continues. The image of the Republican party doesn't recover, convincing most Americans that they're too irresponsible to be trusted with governing, making it all but impossible for them to win the presidency or take control of the Senate. Yet they keep holding the House indefinitely, or at a minimum until a post-2020 redistricting reduces their stranglehold on the House.
This is a pretty bleak picture of the future, I know. And I suppose it's possible that after a third presidential loss in a row, a leader who pulls the GOP to the center emerges, in the way Bill Clinton did for the Democrats after three such losses. But it's important to remember that even liberal Democrats went along with Clinton's recentering, at least in some part. They were willing to admit that they had a problem that nominating the most liberal presidential candidate wouldn't necessarily solve. But do you think this generation of Tea Party Republicans will ever acknowledge that moving further to the right is not the answer to every problem and every defeat?