The New Nihilism Threatens GOP’s Growth

Cantor’s defeat signals deep problems for a party being pushed further to the right by the antigovernment wing.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (R) speaks while flanked by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor spoke to the media after attending a closed meeting with House Republicans. In an unexpected upset, Cantor was later defeated by Tea Party challenger David Brat in Virginia's congressional primary.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Norm Ornstein
June 11, 2014, 8 a.m.

Be­fore nona­gen­ari­an Rep. Ral­ph Hall lost his seat in a Re­pub­lic­an primary in Texas, no in­cum­bent had been de­feated in primar­ies this year, lead­ing to the dom­in­ant press and pun­dit nar­rat­ive: The Re­pub­lic­an Em­pire Strikes Back. Oops. Now with the stun­ning de­feat of Eric Can­tor, we have nar­rat­ive whip­lash: The Re­turn of the Tea Party.

Nar­rat­ives are nice, clean, and easy, but the world is far messi­er. Can­tor’s de­feat is huge, but it does not re­flect a uni­ver­sal trend; after all, South Car­o­lina’s Re­pub­lic­ans — who threw out free-mar­keter Bob Ing­lis be­cause he was not con­ser­vat­ive enough, who gave us Jim De­Mint, and who made sure that many loc­al GOP chapters de­nounced Lind­sey Gra­ham as a so­cial­ist — also gave Gra­ham a com­fort­able mar­gin as he cruised to re­nom­in­a­tion.

Sen. Thad Co­chran may well lose his re­nom­in­a­tion in Mis­sis­sippi, but the bat­ting av­er­age for “es­tab­lish­ment” Re­pub­lic­ans this year will still be over .900. And yet, there are ser­i­ous and real re­ver­ber­a­tions here. For one thing, politi­cians are more moved by vivid ex­ample than over­all stat­ist­ics. All it took was one Bob Ben­nett in Utah to move Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans sig­ni­fic­antly to the right in at­ti­tude, agenda, and rhet­or­ic. The as­sault on Can­tor as a sup­port­er of am­nesty may not have been the main reas­on for his de­feat, but we can be sure that the word “leg­al­iz­a­tion” will not cross the lips of Re­pub­lic­ans of many stripes in the months to come, ex­cept as an epi­thet.

The main les­son here may be the pop­u­list one. The tea-party move­ment is not a Re­pub­lic­an move­ment, or a con­ser­vat­ive move­ment. It is rad­ic­al, anti-in­sti­tu­tion­al, anti-lead­er­ship, an­ti­gov­ern­ment. It is driv­en by sus­pi­cion of the motives and ac­tions of all lead­ers, in­clud­ing those in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Can­tor’s glar­ingly ob­vi­ous per­son­al am­bi­tion fed those sus­pi­cions, but his de­feat was a de­feat for the broad­er es­tab­lish­ment, which com­prom­ises too read­ily and feeds its own in­terests first. That at­ti­tude, by the way, also is em­bod­ied in many of the big donors to can­did­ates and out­side groups, mean­ing it rep­res­ents an on­go­ing ser­i­ous head­ache for party lead­ers.

I wrote my column be­fore Can­tor’s de­feat, on the new ideas spring­ing up to give con­ser­vat­ism a new policy found­a­tion, as a vehicle for chan­ging the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s course. Such a change doesn’t have to start with of­fice­hold­ers or party of­fi­cials. It can in­stead be led by policy in­tel­lec­tu­als identi­fy­ing with or at­tached to the party; this was the case with the Demo­crat­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil and the re­lated Pro­gress­ive Policy In­sti­tute in the 1980s; ideas that flowed from DCL and PPI, and the al­li­ances they built with re­cept­ive gov­ernors, may­ors, and law­makers, helped provide a main­stream and cent­rist base for Bill Clin­ton’s 1992 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Now, a group of con­ser­vat­ive in­tel­lec­tu­als, many at my own in­sti­tu­tion, are try­ing to do the same thing for the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

The prime salvo here is the re­cently re­leased Room to Grow, not a full-fledged book with de­tailed policies but a set of es­says by smart ana­lysts that lay out pro­pos­als and ideas across a range of policy areas. Dav­id Brooks earli­er this week called it “the most co­her­ent and com­pel­ling policy agenda the Amer­ic­an Right has pro­duced this cen­tury.” That is a bit ex­tra­vag­ant, but in fact, Room to Grow is a ser­i­ous doc­u­ment, with a frame­work to jus­ti­fy the dir­ec­tion of the ideas and a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing and con­struct­ive pro­pos­als, some of which (on jobs and the long-term un­em­ploy­ment prob­lem) I have writ­ten about be­fore.

I am not go­ing to write either a de­tailed re­view of the volume or a de­tailed cri­tique of many of the ideas, some of which are nat­ur­ally more con­struct­ive and plaus­ible than oth­ers. What in­terests me the most at this point is wheth­er this ini­ti­at­ive par­al­lels the ef­forts of the DLC and PPI, and how the ideas have been em­braced, or not, by the poli­cy­makers and politi­cians who will have to buy in to the frame­work and the spe­cif­ics to make this more than an aca­dem­ic ex­er­cise.

A troub­ling fea­ture of the volume, un­der­scor­ing the tur­bu­lent wa­ters re­flect­ing in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, is in the al­most-ob­lig­at­ory way the vari­ous au­thors have to draw sharp, and strained, con­trasts with “the Left.” In vir­tu­ally every es­say, in­stead of point­ing out how the ideas could form the basis of a new cen­ter, there is a ca­ri­ca­tured por­trait of the Left that sug­gests that the con­ser­vat­ive ideas are a 180-de­gree con­trast with the op­pos­i­tion, and not ap­proaches along a con­tinuum that can find that com­mon ground some­where in or near the middle. In fact, as Jonath­an Chait and E.J. Di­onne have poin­ted out, sev­er­al of the ideas cham­pioned in Room to Grow, such as an ex­pan­ded Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, have been em­braced or sup­por­ted by Barack Obama, who has op­er­ated far more as a prag­mat­ic pro­gress­ive than a rad­ic­al left­ist. That is a real­ity ig­nored, and cer­tainly not cham­pioned, in the mono­graph. Draw­ing the con­trast is a use­ful rhet­or­ic­al tool, but also sug­gests that it is a price the au­thors de­cided to pay to gain the at­ten­tion of par­tis­ans and ideo­logues who have no de­sire to em­brace ideas that might pos­sibly be sup­por­ted by Obama.

The deep­er prob­lem here is that the zeit­geist of the Re­pub­lic­an Party has moved so sharply not just to the right, but to a rad­ic­al stance, with two com­pon­ents. The first is baked in­to the broad­er com­ment­ary, from cable news to talk ra­dio to blogs — if Obama is for it, we have to be against it. Room to Grow has noth­ing pos­it­ive to say about any ele­ment of Obama­care, cri­ti­cizes the Com­mon Core (even as it ap­proves the idea of ser­i­ous stand­ards), and ig­nores key policy areas like in­fra­struc­ture, en­ergy con­ser­va­tion, cli­mate change, even im­mig­ra­tion. But that is re­flect­ive of a deep­er re­ac­tion.

Most Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning in 2014 care­fully avoid say­ing that there are parts of the Af­ford­able Care Act we ought to keep, or that we should mend it. And we now see gov­ernors like Bobby Jin­dal who once en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally sup­por­ted Com­mon Core de­noun­cing it to curry fa­vor with “the base.” That Can­tor voted to re­open the gov­ern­ment led by Obama, and voted to raise the debt ceil­ing dur­ing Obama’s term, was Ex­hib­it A for rad­ic­als.

The second and more-sig­ni­fic­ant com­pon­ent, seen most vividly re­cently not in Vir­gin­ia but at the Re­pub­lic­an Con­ven­tion in Texas, is the al­most ni­hil­ist­ic at­ti­tude that all gov­ern­ment is bad — that any at­tempt to find “solu­tions” to prob­lems that in any way in­volve gov­ern­ment is wrong and al­most evil, un­less it fo­cuses mono­ma­ni­ac­ally on cut­ting spend­ing and cut­ting gov­ern­ment. Dav­id Brooks’s cri­tique of Room to Grow is that it fails to ac­know­ledge that there are times when an act­ive gov­ern­ment, not just a de­cent­ral­ized and smal­ler one, will be ne­ces­sary. But even a de­cent­ral­ized gov­ern­ment is too much gov­ern­ment for many of those who dom­in­ate caucuses, con­ven­tions, primar­ies, fund­ing, and dis­course on the right.

Can­tor un­der­stood the en­ergy be­hind the new ni­hil­ism; in fact, he en­cour­aged and ex­ploited it in 2010 to help his party gain the ma­jor­ity and make him lead­er. But he wasn’t able to curb it for his own pre­ser­va­tion. Can­tor and his lead­er­ship col­leagues have loved the op­tics of a new agenda far more than ac­tu­ally pro­mot­ing it in con­crete terms — be­cause do­ing so in a ser­i­ous way di­vides the party, in­flames the base and un­der­mines the lead­er­ship for its apostasy in em­bra­cing solu­tions that mean more of the same — more gov­ern­ment, even if it is less than we have now. If any­thing, Can­tor’s de­feat will make lead­ers even more gun-shy about mov­ing to real solu­tions or new ap­proaches.

The fact is that, even be­fore Can­tor’s de­feat, Re­pub­lic­an House and Sen­ate lead­ers had shown no in­terest in op­er­a­tion­al­iz­ing a bold or in­nov­at­ive policy agenda. Maybe that is a short-term strategy, based on the be­lief that suc­cess in the midterms ahead will be driv­en far more by a re­ac­tion against the Obama status quo than on a con­trast with an al­tern­at­ive agenda. And maybe, as with the Demo­crats in 1992, the ap­proach changes with the nom­in­a­tion in 2016 of a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who makes the Room to Grow ideas the center­piece of his or her cam­paign and policy agenda — that would mean, of all the pos­sib­il­it­ies, only Jeb Bush.

But giv­en the cur­rent dy­nam­ics of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, my guess is that the like­li­hood of a Bush nom­in­a­tion or pres­id­ency is slim. In our book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Tom Mann and I char­ac­ter­ized the Re­pub­lic­an Party as an in­sur­gent out­lier. In that party, as it is now con­sti­tuted, new ideas com­ing from pointy-headed in­tel­lec­tu­als (who will not be viewed as sa­viors by ni­hil­ists) are go­ing to re­quire a whole lot more time to ger­min­ate.

What We're Following See More »
Mnuchin: Expect Tax Overhaul by August
10 hours ago
Trump Looking to Expand Nuclear Arsenal
10 hours ago
Alt-Right Leader Spencer Removed from CPAC
10 hours ago
White House Promises Crackdown on Pot
11 hours ago
Cruz Predicts Another SCOTUS Vacancy “This Summer”
15 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.