Jeanne Cummings and Mark Niquette wrote a decent piece for Bloomberg recently suggesting that the ultimate cause of the current debt ceiling crisis is the rapid rise in party loyalty in recent years. This is only partially right. Hyper-partisanship is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for this crisis.
To be sure, polarization has occurred among both parties, and both parties' Congressional leaders are willing to play serious hardball to get what they want. But only one party chose to impeach a president for lying about fellatio. Only one party proposed shutting down the government to force a president to agree with its agenda. And today, that same party has chosen to use the pretty routine task of raising the debt limit to pay for past commitments as a weapon to constrain future spending. This is simply how the modern Republican Party operates when Democrats control the White House: they invent crises. I do not say this to score partisan points -- it is simply an observation of recent political history.
Why do they choose such high-profile showdowns, especially given the outcomes of previous showdowns? After all, while the Clinton impeachment embarrassed the White House and possibly affected the 2000 election, it failed to remove Clinton from office, portrayed the GOP as extreme, and cost Speaker Gingrich his job. Similarly, the government shutdown of the mid-1990s is, among Republican officeholders, widely believed to have been a huge miscalculation that damaged their party's reputation and strengthened President Clinton's hand.
But the Republicans do not pursue such tactics to become loved. For one thing, you don't need to be loved to win an election, just hated slightly less than the other guy. For another, the GOP approach to governing is a logical consequence of how they whip up their activist base in order to win elections. If you tell people that the president is an illegitimate, immoral monster or that government spending is a mortal sin enough times, eventually you have to deliver on it or your base sees you as a fraud.