One would have to be pretty far gone in spin to deny the obvious about yesterday’s defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary: Republican voters were rejecting the idea of “comprehensive immigration reform.” To be sure, it was not the only reason he was defeated. A sizable number of voters thought he had grown inattentive to the district. David Brat, who beat Cantor, assailed him for being too tight with Wall Street and big business on a range of corporate-welfare issues. A lot of tea partiers are unhappy with a Republican hierarchy that they see as insufficiently willing to fight for conservative principles. Immigration, though, was indisputably the top policy issue in the race, and it was a symbol of everything else that motivated Brat’s candidacy.
A lot of Republicans, disproportionately those in Washington, D.C., harbor the fantasy that the party could make great gains among Hispanic voters if it would only offer legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, create large guest-worker programs, and refrain from insisting that enforcement of the existing laws be shown to work before taking these steps. Cantor refused to shut the door on this approach, so primary voters shut the door on him.
Here’s my favorite Eric Cantor story. At the Republican Convention in 2008, I approached Cantor after an event, introduced myself as a constituent, and told him where I lived. It’s a tiny place, more of a wide spot in the road than an actual town, so this was partly a test to see how well Cantor knew his own district. I turns out that he did recognize the town, and to prove it, he started to tell me about how he had worked on getting us an earmark for a local Civil War battlefield park. An earmark, mind you, just after Republicans had officially renounced earmarks in an attempt to appease small-government types. Cantor suddenly realized this and literally stopped himself in mid-sentence. Then he hastily added: “But we don’t do that any more.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Eric Cantor: the soul of an establishment machine politician, with the “messaging” of the small-government conservatives grafted uneasily on top of it.
So yes, you can now tear up all those articles pronouncing the death of the Tea Party movement, because this is the essence of what the Tea Party is about: letting the establishment know that they have to do more than offer lip service to a small-government agenda, that we expect them to actually mean it. Or as Dave Brat put it in one of his frenzied post-victory interviews, “the problem with the Republican principles is that nobody follows them.”
But if you are a nervous Republican member of Congress, the lesson you’re going to take is the one that keeps you alive: Don’t fall out of favor with your activist base.
If you do get into trouble, even the traditional weaponry might not save you. Cantor outspent his opponent 20-to-1. Cantor had the power to deliver things to his district. Cantor was seen as next in line to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, which would have meant even more power and prestige for his district. This is an undiluted version of the lesson being taught in Mississippi where Sen. Thad Cochran’s incumbency—and the funnel of federal spending that goes with it—aren’t protecting him from a Tea Party challenger. Expensive pollsters aren’t going to save you, either. Cantor’s told him he was up by 35 points going into the election…
If the House leadership needed a member to take a tough vote, they could convince him that his fears of being targeted were overblown. Members no longer had to worry as much about well-financed groups with communications departments harnessing grass-roots anger and pointing it at them. The problem is that’s not what happened in the Cantor race. Those outside groups didn’t play the role in this race that they have in other races that have been labeled as Tea Party vs. Establishment fights. (Though that didn’t stop them from pretending they had a hand in Brat’s victory.) So the message is the refreshing and reaffirming one that it’s the voters who can turn on you. Brat’s win will encourage more attempts, and whether the Cantor defeat can be replicated elsewhere doesn’t matter. All incumbents will think there is a monster hiding under their bed—and maybe they’re right.
GOP source: "we're going to end up with 1, maybe 2 people in (House) leadership who don't qualify as grown-up and/or ready for primetime"
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) June 11, 2014
NEWS: Boehner privately told several close friends in af'noon that he feels compelled to run again for speaker, be ldr in time of unrest
— Robert Costa (@costareports) June 11, 2014
Brat made a broader case that used opposition to Cantor on immigration as a policy centerpiece. His campaign did not solely consist of frothing denunciations of “amnesty.”
Instead, he argued that Cantor’s position on immigration was representative of an agenda that would lower American wages, pervert the free market, and undermine the rule of law. Brat wove opposition to mass legalization and expanded guest-worker programs into a broader narrative of defending the middle class, restoring opportunity, and advancing the cause of economic liberty (which is deeply connected, according to Brat, to the rule of law)…
By making opposition to the White House’s immigration agenda part of a broader narrative about defending the middle class and advancing freedom, Brat was able to build a grassroots movement into a winning coalition. Many proponents of Republican reform have been very skeptical about what the Beltway calls “comprehensive immigration reform” (i.e., bad-faith open borders) because they fear that this set of policies undermines the average American worker, damages economic opportunity, and harms the civic fabric of the nation.
Far from a defeat for conservative reformers (as some have alleged), Brat’s victory could instead be seen as a sign of the growing viability of a conservatism that synthesizes beliefs in decentralized power, economic opportunity and growth, middle-class uplift, the rule of law, the protection of civil liberties, and a strong national defense.
Many responses to the reform conservative agenda have applauded the impulse to bring more policy innovation to the conservative arsenal, but have almost all done so from a perspective where to “reform” the Republican Party is to make it “more moderate”, and more “moderate” in the specific sense of (although those critics would never phrase it that way, perhaps even to themselves) more responsive to the interests and aspirations of America’s elite…
Most #reformocons I know, and myself certainly, believe that this is a terrible error in political judgement. The GOP, if it can be America’s majority party, must ally itself with the aspirations and interests of America’s broad middle generally, and its working families in particular. These people do not have the same views or interests as inside-the-Beltway and Park Slope types, to say the least.
The reform conservative agenda is an agenda that is populist, that is to say, it is clearly, unabashedly, and thoroughly, on the side of the broad swaths of Americans who have been victimized by long-standing trends in American life, both social and economic. But it does so in an intelligent way–not through sure-to-fail big government programs and handouts. Not through sure-to-fail big government programs and handouts with a GOP veneer. Not through sure-to-fail utopian attempts to blowtorch all of the Great Society and the New Deal and the Progressive Era right now. Not through budgetary or monetary austerity. Through intelligent, conservative, populist policy.
A violent revolution is unconscionable. But what may be in the air is a peaceful populist revolt—a bottom-up, tech-fueled assault on 20th-century political institutions. In a memo to his fellow Democrats, former Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik writes persuasively about “an increasing populist push” across the political spectrum.
At the core of Americans’ anger and alienation is the belief that the American Dream is no longer attainable. Previous generations held fast to the promise that anyone who worked hard and played by the rules could get ahead, regardless of their circumstances. But increasingly, Americans have concluded that the rules aren’t fair and that the system has been rigged to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the many. And now the government is simply not working for anyone.
Americans’ long-brewing discontent shows clear signs of reaching a boiling point. And when it happens, the country will judge its politicians through a new filter—one that asks, “Which side of the barricade are you on? Is it the side of the out-of-touch political class that clings to the status quo by protecting those at the top and their own political agendas, or is it the side that is fighting for the kind of change that will make the government work for the people—all the people?”
The problem is that the incentives pushing Republicans to take positions against immigration reform (or, even worse, as Eric Cantor seemed to do, to flip-flop on the issue) in order to win primaries probably also sow the seeds for future national general election losses. (No, I don’t think Hispanics are solely focused on immigration reform, but I do think tackling this problem is a sine qua non.)
Even more frustrating is the fact that Republicans seem to have chosen to create this sort of vicious cycle, whereby perceived antagonism toward immigrants has led to Republicans losing Hispanic votes — which, in turn, has led other Republicans to argue that immigration reform is electoral suicide… Repeat.
This seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the GOP’s own choosing; Democrats now “own” the immigration reform “brand,” which has all sorts of long-term consequences and implications, including the fact that conservatives now reflexively oppose even moderate reforms like the DREAM Act. And frankly, I suspect, Democrats are perfectly happy with that.