Friday, June 13, 2014

Appeasing the beast, and its consequences:
Eric Cantor and the Tea Party

WELL WE DIDN’T see this coming, now did we? In a 24/7 media environment pretty much inured to everything happening sooner or later, the overnight demolition of the political career of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has the mediasphere scrambling for adjectives and precedent. There’s plenty of the first to go around; we scribes of the interwebs do what we can to make sure of that.

But precedent? There is none. Cantor, who on Tuesday lost his primary congressional race in the Virginia 7th District to a game Tea Party challenger, was the first House Majority Leader to ever lose a primary.

Serving that district since 2001, Cantor was long thought to be heir apparent to the post of Speaker of the House. He lost his primary bid to David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Mason University and Tea Party evangelist of the moment. The 11-point margin (Brat 55, Cantor 44) can only be characterized as a blowout, and a stunning one for Cantor, whose own internal polling put him well ahead as recently as last week.

Some in the rightward chambers of the punditburo have pointed to Cantor’s thrashing in Virginia and the June 24th runoff between incumbent Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, as a renascence of the Tea Party. It is, but in only the narrowest of terms.

The Tea Party movement’s biggest problem since its astroturfed inception in 2009 has been a problem of exportability — of transforming primary-season victories into general-election victories, and that hasn’t changed.

Reaching the demographically broader, more diverse general population of many states, and certainly the nation as a whole, is the challenge the increasingly right-moving TP crowd has no answer for. That’s why, despite regional victories in the early going of this campaign year, the Tea Party may well be — like one of the old incandescent bulbs we’ve been replacing — shining at its brightest in the moment before the bulb burns out.

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Cantor stepped to the microphones on Tuesday night, game but gut-shot in his concession speech to his supporters. “Obviously, we came up short,” he said, in a mastery of understatement.

“Serving as the 7th District congressman, and then having the privlege to be majority leader, has been one of the highest honors of my life,” Cantor said. “And what I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have always said we’re about, is we wanna create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody.”

“And we need to focus our efforts — as conservative, as Republicans — on putting forth our conservative solutions,” he continued, “so that they can help solve the problems for some many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunities that we have.”

These are the kinds of things that I know we’re going to work on,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight. And, um, it’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country, I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”

“So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things we all believe in, for the conservative cause,” Cantor said, “because those solutions of ours are the answer to the problems that so many people are facing today. Thank you all so very much.”

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CANTOR’S DEFEAT wasn’t a matter of being outspent. Just the opposite: The outgoing House leader (he formally resigns on July 31) spent about $5 million on his primary fight, compared to the couch-cushion-money war chest of $206,000 spent by Brat’s insurgent campaign — a triumph of economic efficiency you might expect from an economist.

As stalwart a Republican as you’d find on Capitol Hill, Cantor had his comeuppance in the Virginia 7 in different ways. He was taken to task by voters on the matter of immigration reform. Cantor stood accused of rank apostasy, and being in league with President Obama on seeking a palatable program for immigration reform via his proposal of the KIDS Act, his GOP version of the DREAM Act.

But that was only part of Cantor’s problem. Another issue for Cantor, thoroughly explained in Christopher Bedford’s story in The Daily Caller, had to do with detachment from the people in his district, and the perception that Cantor was working both sides of the street, being politically disingenuous with the people who mattered most: his constituents.

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“While other leadership candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent months courting tea party and base voters, Cantor’s team turned on them in a sustained and unsuccessful campaign that culminated in his Tuesday night defeat,” Bedford wrote Wednesday.

In November 2013, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Lt. Gov. E.W. Jackson and their candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, were defeated by Democrats in their respective bids for governor and attorney general. It was then that Cantor and his allies mounted a bid to retrieve Virginia politics from the rise of Tea Party activists, beginning the alienation that led to what happened on Tuesday night.

“People who had no interest in the 7th District race were enraged that Cantor’s allies were involved in the process of disenfranchising conservative activists who make phone calls, donate time and money, and above all else, vote,” said Paul Blair, Americans for Tax Reform state affairs manager.

Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist and head of Young Americans for Freedom said: “I’ve been to thousands of conservative events around Virginia, and I never saw Eric Cantor at any of these events. Never. He clearly was a candidate of the Chamber of Commerce, and just lost touch with conservatives.”

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IT WASN’T that Cantor didn’t try. Remember, it was Cantor who took point on efforts to weaponize the debt-ceiling vote, leading this country into unnecessary economic turmoil; sequestration and an economy on the brink of default is what followed. He tried to do a balancing act, placating base voters while working under the radar against the Tea Party activists that constitute much of that base. He couldn’t pull it off.

Some of Cantor’s downfall had to do with style. There’s always been something tirelessly slick about Cantor’s personal style. His suave, oleaginous, quasi-patrician, too-D.C.-by-half manners were at odds with the raw, angry, rural, gun-owning citizens that populated his district.

To the extent that immigration reform was an issue, Cantor’s defeat was a regional manifestation of the politics of fear. The issue of immigration reform matters. It’s always been there, bubbling away despite Congress’ unwillingness to deal with it.

The tide of opposition to immig reform by Republicans in general and deep-red conservatives in particular is a pushback against the emergence of the Latino vote — and the fears among conservatives in southern states that Latinos will overwhelm them! Take their jobs! Attend their kids’ schools! Assume their rightful place under the American sun in untold numbers! The horror ... the horror.

The Tea Party’s stubborn survival in the southern states may be largely limited to those states, the precincts of a conservative xenophobia that brooks no compromise and is ruthless with anything less than blood allegiance. Cantor found that out the hard way on Tuesday night.

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But still. Even in Tuesday’s triumph of one Tea Party candidate, there was proof of the movement’s vulnerability. Lindsey Graham, the longtime mainstream South Carolina Republican senator, just got the best of six other challengers, with Tea Party affiliations, and beat them like a chef beats an egg. In Tuesday’s South Carolina primary, Graham stopped them all with more than 53 percent of the vote, sparing himself a runoff.

Graham, a reliable burr under the presidential saddle, has also angered the Tea Party, partly because of his own efforts at achieving immigration reform, and partly (whether the TP admits it or not) because Graham’s long presence in the Senate — 11 years and counting — activates the Tea Party’s reflex antagonism toward congressional longevity. Dick Lugar knows how that works.

A success here, a stalemate there, a flat-out defeat somewhere else ... that’s not a track record of success, that’s no throughline for a message, an exportable, uniform, consistent political message that the cross-section of the American public can get behind. That’s the Tea Party’s paramount challenge, and they’ll never be more than a noisy regional force until and unless they do something about it.

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THAT FACT may also be a problem for the just-elevated David Brat. On paper, his academic credentials are seriously impressive: specialist in macroeconomics and international trade and finance; Ph.D. from American University; Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.

But the Republicans of Virginia aren’t voting for an economist, they’re voting to elect a congressman. Just as Cantor’s glib, tailored style may have clashed with the more populist, passionate residents of his district in the primary election, Brat’s Tea Party-fueled, barely-hinged outrage is likely to confront the same stylistic conflicts, and worse, when he campaigns amid a wider electorate already repulsed by Tea Party antics and rhetoric.

The Tea Party’s seeming ascendancy may yet be the limited commodity it’s historically prided itself on being from the start. Proud of its outlier status and its maverick demolitions, the Tea Party movement has been defined by its willingness to stand in the doorway of legislative progress, and its attempts to legitimize that obstruction as a new way to govern in Washington.

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Now the Tea Party is reaching for the credibility it’s done its best to squander. In the primary season, the deepest of the conservatives won’t care. In the general election this November and in 2016, the American public almost certainly will.

They’ll recall the movement’s free-floating racially-tinged rage; its role in institutionalizing the slashing of government services; the shredding of the safety net; its genuflection toward Wall Street; its virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act; its hostility to science; its wanton erosion of women's abortion and reproductive rights.

And they’re bound to think about how, with no central authority or defining ethos beyond a bumper-sticker scream, the Tea Party movement is too autonomous to take seriously, too enamored of everyone in the movement doing their own thing, setting their own agenda — even while it’s grafted to a Republican party always eager to “rebrand” itself — to change the label on the can without doing a thing to change the product inside.

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IN HIS dealings with the Tea Party, Cantor discovered that appeasing the beast won’t stop the beast from eating you when it’s hungry enough. But the beast’s appetites are its dangers too.

As Republican candidates turn themselves inside out to see who can tack farthest to the right, as the primary season turns to the general election, whoever wins the fight to the right won’t be able to move back to the center. Where most voters live. Not just most voters in Virginia or most voters in the south. Most voters in America. In its relentless drive for ideological purity, the last thing the beast will devour is itself.

The New York Times said it in a Wednesday editorial about Cantor and the TP crowd: “Having unleashed the most destructive political impulses of his party, he finally fell victim to them.” As summer turns to fall, as 2014 moves to 2016, the only question is how many more Republicans will fall victims to a movement historically bent on defining its future by its appetite for destruction.

All apologies to the great Red Barber: The electoral viability of the Tea Party is dead. Political reality is strangling the invention of that movement, by almost imperceptible degrees. For its dead-enders and true believers, only the utterly impractical, the inexpressibly selfish, the implausibly myopic can ever be acceptable from now on.

And that fact will ultimately be its undoing.

Image credits: Cantor: via The Daily Banter. Cantor lower image: Steve Helber/Associated Press. Cantor and Obama: via Graham: CBS News. Brat: Steve Helber/Associated Press. Tea Party protest sign: via The Huffington Post.

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