The dust from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking upset primary loss in Virginia’s 7th District is starting to settle. However, the whole chain of events — culminating in what looks to be Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s elevation to the No. 2 job slot — is still Topic A in Washington.
Although Cantor’s defeat is a difficult surprise to top, the inability of the more-doctrinaire conservatives to mount a challenge to McCarthy is in itself quite something. Many House conservatives have complained about a lack of leadership in their party, but when the opportunity arose, they not only had no leadership, but perhaps no followership either. McCarthy is walking into the second-ranked slot with far less opposition than anyone might have expected. It says something about how assiduous and attentive he has been to members — but also about how disorganized the more ideological members of the party are.
The ironies of recent days are many. If someone had previously suggested that, one way or another, one of the top four Republicans in the House would be toppled, who would have guessed it would be Cantor, the most conservative of the four? And that he would be defeated for not being conservative enough? The suggestion would have been laughable.
Or, for that matter, who would have guessed that Cantor’s election-night party would be interrupted by stampeding immigration-reform protesters? Did the protesters even realize that he lost partly for taking a baby step in favor of restoring some sanity to our immigration system? My guess is they were there to protest his victory and when they realized Cantor had up and lost, they didn’t want to waste their trip down I-95. But their lack of understanding of intra-Republican politics was astounding.
It’s pretty clear that for this year, and very likely also for 2015 and 2016, immigration reform is deader than Kelsey’s nuts. One lobbyist working to convince pro-immigration reform clients to shift their efforts in a different direction has privately said, “Sometimes, strategic counsel requires letting the team know that the horse is dead — and quit whipping it.” The same can be said on trade issues, specifically with trade-promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Neither has any chance of getting through the Senate this year, with Senate Democrats the main obstacle. However, pro-trade types, like pro-immigration reform types, view things in an almost theological way and refuse to concede that both causes are, for the time being, dead. Commitment to a cause often gets in the way of clear thinking, even for some really smart people.
One of the things being said is that the growing meme of the GOP establishment beating the tea party has taken a hit with Cantor’s loss. But in some ways, that narrative was simply wrong to begin with. If establishment Republicans are rhetorically and even substantively meeting the tea party more than halfway on politics and policy, are they really beating it? They may not be joining the tea party, but they are hardly taking the movement on.
Before the South Carolina GOP primary earlier this month, a political website reported back-to-back items about Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The first was a report on a poll showing Graham with 49 percent of the vote, 1 point short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. The next item was Graham telling a conservative talk-show host that Republicans might start coming out for impeachment if President Obama released any more Guantanamo prison detainees. When pushed into a corner, throw red meat — that usually seems to do the trick. It’s hard to find Republicans thumbing their noses at the tea party; more often, they seem to just try to appease and neutralize it. The idea that Graham and other more-establishment Republicans stood up and defeated the tea party is simply absurd.
More broadly, Cantor’s loss signals that the chances of compromising on anything remotely controversial for the duration of the Obama administration are even lower than before. Senate Democrats, desperate to maintain their tenuous majority, are fearful of anything — the Keystone XL pipeline, for example — that might offend their base, while Republicans, in both the House and the Senate, are terrified of alienating theirs. Toss in, for good measure, a largely irrelevant White House and a president who is not loved, feared, or respected by many members on Capitol Hill in either party, and you have a recipe for inaction.
Some kind of reset button may or may not be hit in 2017, with a new president, when some current players are gone and some issues worked through, but not before.