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Determining the winners and losers

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans were the big losers in the shutdown of the government and the near-default. Certainly, that's what the polls show. And Sen. Ted Cruz has become the "poster boy" for a failed strategy that finally ended when the grownups in the Senate hammered out the sort of deal that should have been passed by the House weeks ago.

The reason it wasn't passed weeks ago is House Speaker John Boehner has more Cruz-wannabes than he can handle, which is to say, a big enough number that, to the end, he had to rely on Democratic votes, with a majority of his own members voting against him. So the center held, but it's a Democratic center these days, even in a Republican House.

The tea party lost. They are being blamed in the national polls. Democrats are licking their chops. Cruz should be cowering in the corner. But he's not, because he's no fool.

The center only matters in general elections. It only matters when you're about to fall off the fiscal cliff. The rest of the time, the ideologues pretty much rule. Cruz knows that, which is why he was smiling.

The people who admire him are not a majority and never will be. But you don't need a moderate majority to win a Republican primary or caucus. In fact, that's pretty much how you lose one.

The Republicans have got themselves in a very difficult box. The candidates who excite their base, those with the strongest support among citizens who vote in low-turnout primaries and even lower-turnout caucuses are the very people who led the temper tantrum of the past few weeks. It's no exaggeration to say that for many of these folks, Cruz is their hero, as are his congressional followers. And there will be plenty of opportunities to show it.

The Republicans who have reason to worry on this morning after are not the ones who shut down the government, but the ones who opened it up again.

Sad but true. They're the ones who could face primary challenges for not being ideological enough. They're the ones who will have to explain why they didn't join in the playground games aimed at taking down Obamacare.

Oh, it's true, of course, that you can't get rid of Obamacare as long as Barack Obama is president. So the Republican effort was hopeless and fruitless. This matters to me. It matters to many people. But in my youth, when I was a high-intensity activist on the other side of the spectrum, I never let the hopelessness of my cause stand in the way of the fervor with which I pursued it.

Today's hopeless cause was tomorrow's party platform and, in the next decade or so, maybe even an act of Congress or an executive order. That's how it was with abortion rights and gay rights, which moved from the ideological left to the center. I'm sure that's how Cruz thinks about Obamacare. So what if defeating it today is a hopeless cause?

People talk all the time about how democracy is corrupted by big money, and it is. But "one person, one vote" is a myth for other reasons, as well, the most basic being that people have very different attitudes toward politics and voting.

Most people view voting the way I view baseball. For much of the season, I pretty much ignore it, not waking up until close to the end, when I start checking to see whether my Red Sox are going to make it to the series. I don't pay attention until the field has been narrowed.

That's how most people vote: only at the end. Ideologues start at the beginning; they pick the candidates who make it to the World Series. What they lack in numbers they make up for in intensity.

The tea party will not go away as a result of this exercise. If anything, their ability to paralyze the country and threaten the world economy, well, that kind of power has to make any ideologue feel good. Had the tea party truly "lost," that would have been good news for Republicans who are trying to win general elections.

No such luck.

Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.