It wasn’t enough for Republican primary voters in Virginia’s 7th District that their congressman, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, helped the GOP regroup after President Barack Obama took office; that Cantor played bad cop to House Speaker John Boehner’s good cop during the 2011 debt-ceiling standoff; or that over his career, Cantor voted with his party close to 96 percent of the time.
What mattered, explains Slate’s Dave Weigel, was that as Cantor started to appear—at least to the Tea Party hard core—ever so slightly more conciliatory after Obama’s 2012 re-election, he “failed to realize that the populists were still demanding total opposition, whether it worked or not, however it polled.”
And the takeaway for Cantor, after losing on Tuesday to Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat, is that the GOP’s Obama treatment—rebuffing any attempts at compromise—can be turned on anyone. Including the GOP’s No. 2 man in the House.
Yes, there were lots of reasons for his loss: Brat’s campaign charge that Cantor was pushing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants; a failure to spot the populist wave coming at him; spending too much time on leadership duties, as opposed to his home district; and reports that hardly anyone—on either side of the aisle—liked him personally. For a straightforward breakdown of the upset, you can check out SiriusXM’s Michael Smerconish on Facebook and Vox’s Andrew Prokop here for a good profile of Brat.
But I think Weigel’s on to something. For right now, there’s no zero lower bound in movement conservatism, so no matter how far right a Republican goes, there’s always someone out there willing to holler “RINO” and take it one step further to the right—even if they’re running against someone like Cantor, who is no one’s definition of liberal.
It’s about rejecting compromise or even the appearance of compromise. Look at Obama.
When he was trying to get bipartisan support on health care reform in 2009, he threw over the public option for the individual mandate—a Republican plan—and still got no GOP votes for Obamacare. After getting shellacked in the 2010 midterms, he agreed to extend the Bush-era cuts on top marginal income tax rates in exchange for repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and extended unemployment benefits. In 2011 he acquiesced to sequestration to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. Obama gradually disenchanted many fellow Democrats, and for his trouble, Republicans labeled him a socialist.
For his part, after Obama’s re-election, Cantor softened his rhetoric on a few issues, including immigration, saying, “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”
And he paid for it. The Cantor-led House flatly declined to go along with the comprehensive immigration-reform bill that passed the Senate, but that didn’t help him. GOP primary voters in his district—whether you call them “grassroots,” “Tea Party” or just “the folks who showed up at the polls”—went with Brat’s more purist, conservatarian platform over Cantor’s. Forget that Brat has never had to take a tough vote on anything.