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
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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.

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