House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in a Republican primary against an unknown economics professor with barely enough money in the bank to buy a mailing list is a political twist that’s a little bit Shakespeare and a little bit House of Cards.
Oh, the irony, as the Bard himself would declare. Cantor was one of the original “young guns” who recruited some of the tea partyers – whose progeny then destroyed him. He was their rep in the more establishment leadership, a public thorn in the side of the White House during the 2011 budget negotiations. Cantor was primed to go places, maybe even to the speakership. But when high ambition strikes, political roots can be severed – even if unintentionally. “Measuring the drapes is never a good political strategy,” a GOPer told me. See: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Will the tea partyers now be in full revolt against all the establishment leaders? If this were TV, Kevin Spacey might say: “You might say that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”
But here’s what’s really going on: The GOP is trying, once again, to figure out exactly what it is – and what it can aspire to be. At this point, it’s a successful congressional party: in control of the House. In the hunt to win control of the Senate, with a real shot at it. An opposition party that shut down the government and thwarted immigration reform.
One teensy problem: The reasons the GOP succeeds as a congressional party are very much the reasons it fails on the presidential level. Base politics works in GOP primaries, to be sure. It also works in congressional races that have been gerrymandered and tailored to partisan voters. But it’s a lousy strategy if you want to win the presidency.
Cantor lost his race for lots of reasons having to do with his own disconnect from his district, or at least the most conservative primary voters in his district. He was so disconnected, in fact, that by the time he realized he was in trouble the train was coming right at him. Arrogance? Maybe. Political malpractice? Maybe.
But there’s something else: Cantor, in recent years, actually started acting like a leader. While he was a holdout against the budget deal in 2011, he wanted to end the government shutdown last year – to the everlasting dismay of the hell-no caucus. And the sin recently was his decision to support one strand of immigration reform: a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the United States illegally, the so-called Dreamers. It was a leadership decision. It was the right decision.
So now Republicans will run scared, and run away from immigration. They will overread this as a litmus test of what they can and cannot support. It’s sad, really, because Sen. Lindsey Graham – who is trying to work a deal on immigration reform – won his GOP primary with almost 60 percent of the vote in South Carolina. So, if Cantor lost and Graham won, how did that happen? Graham actually went back home, explained his positions to the voters and got out his supporters. Politics 101.
But, as usual, the politicians will overdraw the lessons from the Cantor loss – and draw the wrong ones, too. Cantor’s demise will scare Republicans away from immigration reform which, as a national party, is an issue that they should embrace. Sure, it hurt Cantor – and brought opponents out of the woodwork. But here’s the real problem: Cantor never figured out that he had to explain himself to the voters who were actually going to show up to vote in the primary.
Shakespeare might remind Cantor that “Men at some times are masters of their fates.” And Spacey’s Frank Underwood would no doubt be succinct in his analysis of Cantor’s loss: “Friends,” he tells us, “make the worst enemies.”
Gloria Borger is chief political analyst for CNN.