Liberals may be forgiven for chuckles of satisfaction after the surprising defeat of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader from Virginia, who was toppled by a tea party candidate in the primary Tuesday.
Cantor was the Republican most offensive to many Democrats and liberals — for his smugness, his ideological rigidity, his smarmy self-righteousness. With the look of an undertaker, he sought to bury the liberal agenda. Ordinarily, he articulated nothing more nuanced than the usual mantra: big government, bad.
To many Vermonters, that reflexive hostility to government is alien, identified in the minds of many with the old Confederacy, where the retrograde politics handed down from the Civil War is based on resentment of the federal government.
Despite his consistent tea party-inspired rhetoric, Cantor found himself in his position as majority leader forced to acquiesce to the compromises required to govern. The Republicans have been responsible for a variety of train wrecks, including the government shutdown last fall and the serial budget impasses that have paralyzed Washington. Cantor has happily backed this strategy of confrontation, even while, reportedly, giving House Speaker John Boehner a case of chronic heartburn. It was said that Cantor’s conservatism made him more popular among the insurgent class of new tea party members than Boehner was and that he represented a potential threat to Boehner’s hold on the speakership.
Nevertheless, it became apparent, even to Cantor, that the government shutdown would have to end and that the government would require a budget. In cutting deals to achieve these aims, Cantor joined Boehner and the establishment. But among hard-core tea party types, apparently, anything but destruction of the federal government was unsatisfactory. It sometimes seemed they were seeking to do what Robert E. Lee had failed to do.
Cantor’s growing unpopularity among his constituents may have been owing to these compromises, but observers of Washington have also noted that Cantor had grown into an arrogant, much disliked figure, close to the lobbying establishment and Wall Street.
Satisfaction in Cantor’s defeat may be short-lived, however. If a conservative as extreme as Cantor is forced to give way before the demands of conservatives even more extreme, then polarization in Congress is likely to become even more pronounced. Then again, with the political demise of Cantor, Boehner may become emboldened enough to try to isolate the extreme right, which, according to one interpretation of events, has hobbled him and prevented him from making the kinds of grand bargains with President Barack Obama that are anathema to the right. As the right wing veers farther and farther to the right, it may make itself increasingly irrelevant, except within the conservative districts of people like Cantor. Nationally, the voters have shown themselves to be far more moderate than the tea party likes us to believe.
The rise of figures like David Brat, who defeated Cantor, reinforces the story line being advanced by Democrats that the Republican Party is in the grip of a narrow ideological fringe incapable of governing or of resolving complex issues, such as immigration or economic inequality. Republicans in 2012 showed that they were capable of undermining themselves by nominating offensive, out-of-touch candidates unpalatable to the great mass of voters. This year, supposedly, the GOP establishment was taking steps to reassert itself against the tea party — that is, until Cantor’s loss.
Polls show that the majority of American people occupy moderate terrain on issues such as immigration, gay marriage, economic justice and climate change. Somehow, the GOP has been able to parlay an extreme minority view into a platform that makes politicians in the middle timorous about asserting themselves. Increasingly, however, Democrats have found their voice, asserting themselves on economic inequality, climate change and other issues, where Republicans have abandoned the field by taking up positions on the far right. Cantor’s departure from leadership may end up furthering the process of making Republicans a loud, narrow, shrinking political force.
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