Here’s my pitch for a boffo movie poster: A rendering of Eric Cantor, tarred and feathered by an angry mob – and the slogan reads, NOBODY IS SAFE!
Yes, folks, the smoke is still spiraling skyward from the latest intramural Republican implosion. In Tuesday night’s Virginia GOP primary, the House Majority Leader paid dearly for his refusal to be a 100 percent zealot, and the message to Cantor’s brethren is that they could suffer the same fate unless they cave unconditionally to the dictates of the conservative cocoon.
But the message to the American mainstream is something else entirely: This ever-rightward Republican party seems self-destructively determined to circle its ideological cul de sac, and thus continue to marginalize itself in presidential elections. Hey, it’s their funeral.
Nobody imagined that Dave Brat, a grassroots conservative upstart with no money, could topple a powerful incumbent with five million bucks in the till. (Here’s me, on May 20: “Brat has scant chance of winning.”) And yet, in hindsight, the canning of Cantor makes perfect sense. He’s a casualty of the purity police, who punished him for the unforgivable sin of deviating every so often from right-wing orthodoxy.
These are people who truly eat their own. Stephen Colbert said it best last night: “No one saw it coming – least of all Eric Cantor, who helped create the tea party by stitching together dead ideas and then filling them with rage.”
Never mind the fact that Cantor had a 95 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, that he has obstructed President Obama from day one (starting with Obama’s economic stimulus package), and that he barely lifted a finger to advance path-to-citizenship immigration reform. Not good enough.
His arrogance and campaign miscues aside, Cantor made the egregious mistake of trying on occasion to (gasp!) govern responsibly He voted to raise the debt ceiling and thus protect the full faith and credit of the United States; unfortunately for him, the grassroots zealots don’t believe in governing, because governing requires negotiating with Democrats. And, even worse, Cantor let slip on occasion that he might consider giving some form of legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children.
Cantor never actually pushed for that kind of reform – he verbalized it, he didn’t prioritize it – but no matter. Dave Brat pounced on his blasphemy and denounced it as “amnesty,” a word that always gins up the rabid white right. Brat’s message was simple: “The amnesty issue is the symbolic powerful expression about the difference between Eric and I.” That message proved far more potent than Cantor’s 25-1 spending advantage in a low-turnout contest dominated by angry rural conservatives.
And if path-to-citizenship reform wasn’t dead in the House before (with Cantor as the number-two leader, it was theoretically still alive), it’s surely buried now. After what happened to Cantor, how many rank-and-file Republicans will dare try to defy the mob? Forget immigration reform; the action this month will be all about picking Cantor’s replacement. House tea-partyers, stoked by the adrenaline of Cantor’s loss, will be jonesing to anoint one of their own.
Purity is a must inside the conservative cocoon, but it’s a loser out there in the wider world. The business community, led by the US. Chamber of Commerce, rightly warns that the House GOP’s hatred of immigration reform will help doom the party’s prospects in the ’16 presidential election. According to the polls, independent swing voters strongly favor reform, and Hispanic voters (who doomed Mitt Romney in at least four states) won’t even look at the GOP unless it says yes to reform.
On Tuesday, Chamber president Tom Donahue said that unless Republicans help pass reform this year, they “shouldn’t even bother to run a candidate in 2016. Think about who the voters are.” But the voters who defeated Cantor don’t care what the Chamber says, because even the big business community has been banished from the cocoon.
Similarly, the Republican National Committee warned in a report 15 months ago that the congressional GOP needs to pass immigration reform: “If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” But the voters who defeated Cantor don’t care what the Republican National Committee says, because the RNC is based in Washington and “Washington” is a dirty word inside the cocoon.
Cantor had assumed that the folks back home still saw him as sufficiently conservative (what, obstructing Obama at virtually turn wasn’t good enough?), but no Republican will dare make that assumption again. For the sake of their own survival, they’ll surrender to the furor of the party’s shrinking core.
And that’s a perfect formula, in 2016, for the GOP’s sixth popular vote defeat in seven presidential elections.
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