I am no fan of Eric Cantor. In my estimation, he's been a destructive and obstructionist force on the Hill, putting personal politics ahead of what's best for the country, the hardliner before the hardline moved. And when he tried to tap dance with the tornado he got blown away. He gets little sympathy from me.
But I do find myself wondering if he missed an opportunity to do something potentially transformative in his ill-fated re-election campaign.
When Cantor recognized that he was in real trouble, he resorted to a tried but true tactic: go further to the right than your critics. In other words, appease the disgruntled to take some steam out of their insurgency. Of course, it didn’t work, presumably because what’s irking the tea party has less to do with the disposition of this or that race, and more with a deep and, apparently, inconsolable sense of grievance that shows no sign of burning itself out. Once that affixed itself to Cantor, he was cooked.
So Cantor, like the Lugar’s and Bennett’s before him, became the latest to be devoured by the GOP's radicalized base. But one is left to ask: What would have happened had Cantor tried a different tack? What if, instead of trying to appease, he stopped, looked around, and said publicly and as his closing argument, “the direction my party is headed is crazy, and while it may cost me the election to say it, I’ve had enough.” Would the outcome have been different? And if not, would his prospects look any different today? I think the answer might well be yes, if not to the former, then at least to the latter question.
Think for a minute about the public profile of the Republican party these days. If you are a casual observer, what do you know about the GOP?
In the not so distant past, the Republican ideal was a clean-cut law and order type, the guy who put his head down, provided for his family and respected authority. He viewed with disdain the kids protesting in the streets about a seemingly endless litany of perceived slights and threatening this or that kind of civil disturbance if they didn’t get what they wanted. Why didn’t they quit their complaining, cut their hair and get a job? Spoiled brats. America, love it or leave it.
To be clear, I'm not endorsing that view. I've never been Republican in my life. The point is how different that positioning is from the one venerated by the more vocal elements of the right today. Now it’s the rabble-rousing cattle rancher who refuses to pay his grazing fees, then meets the government’s effort to collect them with an armed militia, that’s called a hero. A violent, law-breaking, crackpot, and he’s the conservative cause celebre. And the young American POW who puts his life on the line for his country? He’s the villain.
It’s this orientation towards America, one predicated on a deep suspicion and hostility towards the current White House, that seems to have fueled the Cantor upset, as well as one percolating in Mississippi. And when the new radicals join Cruz, Paul and Lee et al. on the Hill, what will their agenda be? Not one iota of compromise with this president. Shut down the government unless we get every last thing we want. Right back to the fiscal cliff. A kind of anti-democratic and high stakes politics that literally puts the interests of a loud and angry minority over the fiscal security of the nation.
And therein lies the rub. No matter how loud and angry they may be, by any measuring stick the tea party is in the minority. And yet, because they’ve been able to exert outsized influence over the Republican party, they’ve been able to exert outsized influence over the direction of the country as a whole, too. And that’s not good. But it does offer someone on the right an opportunity, if they choose to grab it.
So, I ask it again: Where is the Republican who stands up and says enough is enough, not with his immediate political prospects in mind, but rather for the good of the country? What if, instead of scrambling to save his political life, that's what Cantor had done? Would it have added even the tiniest modicum of steel to the spine of the moderate Republican, no matter where that endangered species may be hiding? Maybe. Would it have gotten national attention? Absolutely. Would it have held out the possibility of rallying a more diverse coalition of supporters to Cantor’s cause than he might otherwise have been able to win? Seems eminently possible. And even if none of that had happened, and Cantor still lost, he would have been well-positioned to come back to leadership within the Republican party sometime down the road, his status as a statesmen clearly enhanced.
Why? Because the fact is that most of us don't agree with the tea party. If you basically believe in your country, warts and all, then the positions staked out by the tea party just aren’t sustainable. Instead, all too often they come across as shrill, narrow and mean-spirited.
Of course, Democrats have been saying that for some time and we are where we are. But a Republican having the guts to say it in the heat of a hard fought election campaign, that's something very different. And its long past due. Because the tea party’s had its run, and it’s time for all of us, whether we're Democrats, Republicans or somewhere in between, to put a stop to it.