On Eric Cantor’s Defeat

            Of the many news accounts seeking to make sense of former U.S. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected primary election loss in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District earlier this month, the analysis offered by the conservative English newsweekly, The Economist, struck me. The magazine offered two major arguments and several less sweeping ones worth examining. The principal theme of the analysis of the primary results (June 14-20, 2014, “Be Brave Republicans”) was clear: it was bad for the “pragmatists” in the GOP and for America. The magazine feared Tea Party favorite and Randolph Macon College economics professor David Brat’s win in the nominating election might mean that the establishment wing of the Republican Party was not regaining solid control of GOP affairs after all.

            The Economist observed that a renewed ascendance of pragmatists indeed seemed to have been occurring in recent months. If it turns out this group has not in fact regained control of the party, the analysis suggested, the Republicans could suffer at the polls and U.S. governance would be poorly served, too. This could occur, the magazine argued, because the GOP might be prevented from selecting one of its strong governors (or former governors, the author mentioned Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey in addition to Jeb Bush of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio) for the presidential nomination in 2016. The analyst contended the Tea Party wing of the party would not allow any of these individuals to win should its partisans be ascendant in 2015-2016. The Economist suggested this would be a pity electorally because it would likely result in a “deserved” national GOP presidential loss in 2016, while also preventing America from enjoying the strong leadership the party could offer.

            The magazine also noted that perhaps Cantor set himself up to lose: “Mr. Cantor’s defeat was partly a reprimand for laziness: he did not spend enough time in his district” (p.12). The writers argued, too, that the positions that had cost Cantor his job were essentially “correct” in its view, especially those concerning national default and immigration reform. The analysis concluded that Cantor was undone foremost by the unbounded zealotry of a primary electorate that had lost its bearings.

            It is useful to consider these arguments in turn. First, it does appear that Brat won in part by contending that Cantor was insufficiently rigid on immigration particularly and on spending more generally. Assuming the college professor ultimately prevails in the general election in November (and it is an assumption at this point) and goes to Washington, he presumably will add to the ranks of those in the Republican caucus who believe that compromise is a sell-out of otherwise correct positions to a hated foe. The Economist is surely right to be worried that this primary election might signal more of the same in GOP politics and thereby indirectly continue to undermine the possibility of effective governance at the national level. If the pragmatists lose in the current tussle for control of the Republican Party, governance will surely suffer, since Tea Party devotees see undermining government action as a victory.

            Nonetheless, while the magazine was correct to point to Brat’s rigid beliefs as a potential problem for future policy-making, it did not mention that his campaign statements completely misrepresented Cantor’s positions on immigration, the apparent lightning rod of the campaign. Brat began his standard stump speech with the unconditional claim that a vote for Cantor was a vote for “open borders,” and then repeated that assertion for rhetorical effect. But Cantor never adopted this stance or anything remotely approximating it, and indeed led the GOP in taking a very harsh general position on immigration reform. Whatever one labels Brat’s argument and thinking, it surely goes well beyond typical campaign critiques. The college economist asserted repeatedly that Cantor stood for a policy that the Congressman had never articulated or adopted. This is not a matter of nuance or interpretation.

            Second, while The Economist’s general argument on the challenge to the Republican Party and to governance that Brat’s victory represents may make sense, it is more difficult to see the magazine’s contention that the establishment wing of the Party is certain otherwise to provide an excellent presidential candidate. Two of those named as possible standard bearers in the analysis are now under criminal investigation (Walker and Christie) and a third (Bush) is tarred within and outside the GOP by the recent failed and unpopular presidency of his brother, George W. Bush. More, apart from these issues, there is no reason to suppose these individuals would govern more effectively than a Democrat, particularly give the penchant of their party in recent decades to promise to dismantle government, rather than to attempt to make it work more effectively. In any case, The Economist’s assumption that the GOP would necessarily offer excellent governance should at least be considered carefully. It is by no means obvious on its face.

            Third, it appears that the general electorate, as the weekly’s writers argued, unlike the typically tiny primary electorates in already gerrymandered congressional districts, is more likely to reject a GOP candidate who refuses to compromise on immigration or otherwise continues to ignore the major issues confronting the nation or promises to lead the nation toward or into default. Brat has taken all of these positions and done so unequivocally.

            Fourth, however, while I do not doubt from multiple accounts I have read that Cantor can be personally arrogant, I wonder if the appropriate measure of that attribute is how often he visited his district. The newsweekly criticized the former majority leader for not spending sufficient time “at home,” which today often means four or more days per week away from Washington for members of Congress, in addition to frequent recesses to campaign and raise funds. The magazine’s analysts’ acceptance of this metric as appropriate is notable. It is difficult to see how any legislation is gaining serious consideration today when lawmakers are not present in Washington so much of their time. Moreover, it seems clear that one reason for the polarization of the nation’s politics in recent years is that our legislators know others in their house of Congress less and less well personally, especially if they are of the other party. This situation is only exacerbated with extended time out of Washington. Bluntly, it is always easier to demonize the unknown. While representatives surely must remain aware of their constituent’s needs and concerns, it is not clear “face time” in the district should come at the expense of effective governance. This now widely shared assumption needs examination and it is interesting that The Economist, so generally incisive, did not acknowledge that fact.

            All of this said, Brat’s victory is cause for concern for both the GOP and American governance. The professor’s ideological absolutism and fervor may help him to make sense of the world and to separate governance issues into simple dichotomous groups of the righteous and unrighteous, but such attitudes neither reflect the realities of the difficult values tradeoffs that attend policymaking, nor the fact that in a free society not all will agree with the Virginian’s views. The real challenges of lawmaking in a diverse nation cannot simply be wished away with sweeping claims of dogmatic fervor, by misleading citizens about the perspectives of others on whatever basis or by demeaning those who would seek to govern. Brat’s dyspeptic view of the world may motivate voters willing to impugn and repudiate the need to govern themselves in favor of broadly cast and absolute negative ideological bromides, but it will do nothing to move the nation forward. The Economist surely is correct to be concerned about the negative implications of the character and form of politics this primary election represented.

Note to readers: Max Stephenson Jr. is taking a break. Soundings will resume on August 4, 2014.