Republicans must not misunderstand the meaning of Eric Cantor’s defeat
Jun 14th 2014 | From the Economist print edition
ERIC CANTOR is by most standards a fairly conservative American. The House majority leader’s commitment to cutting government spending has survived an earthquake and a hurricane: when both hit his Virginia district in 2011 he insisted that any federal disaster relief be offset by budget cuts elsewhere. He is also credited with, or blamed for, scuppering a grand bargain between House Republicans and the president that was meant to shrink the deficit by cutting spending a lot, on the grounds that it raised taxes a bit.
Yet the Republican voters in his June 10th primary were not convinced of his bona fides. Though he had helped to block a recent proposal for immigration reform in the House, he had once talked of a limited amnesty for some migrants who arrived as children. And he had suggested that perhaps, on this, a compromise with Barack Obama might be possible. Mr. Cantor also voted to reopen the government in October and to avoid a disastrous technical default on America’s sovereign debt. Faced with such infamy the primary voters backed David Brat, a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland who is rock solid on opposing immigration—effectively ejecting Mr. Cantor from Congress. “God acted through people on my behalf,” Mr. Brat told Fox News.
But if God intervened in the race, he is clearly a Democrat. Mr. Brat’s victory is bad for both the Republicans and America, for it increases the chances that a party beginning to recover a bit of its vim will veer off once again to the right, as incumbents scramble to make themselves primary-proof.
No you Cantor
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee concluded that the federal wing of the party was “increasingly marginalising itself”. Young voters, it said, are “rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” This newspaper, which has often backed Republicans in the past, shared some of those emotions: the sunny small-government optimism of Ronald Reagan had given way to the party’s moralising southern-fried wing, with its disdain for immigrants, gays and economic solutions not composed wholly of tax cuts.
Before Mr. Cantor’s ouster, the party seemed to be making some progress. The Republicans looked increasingly likely to take the Senate in the mid-term elections in November, partly because of Barack Obama’s unpopularity and partly because mid-terms are low turnout elections. Voters who are old and white are more likely to turn out, and Republicans do well with both. A smaller share of eligible voters showed up in the 2010 mid-terms than for the widely derided elections to the European Parliament.
To be fair, though, the party had also made an attempt to learn from its presidential defeat. In several primaries this year, more moderate old-timers beat Tea Party candidates who had condemned them for their culpably conciliatory attitude towards Democrats. This opened up the possibility of a much more Republican America this November, with the party, which also controls the House of Representatives and most state legislatures, in charge of everything but the presidency. The stage would then be set for someone with experience of running a state—Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich—to wrestle Hillary Clinton for the White House in 2016.
Mr. Cantor’s defeat was partly a reprimand for laziness: he did not spend enough time in his district. But it is also a reminder of how far the party still has to go. The gap between the Tea Party activists and the pragmatists remains immense. And the issues on which Republicans can agree these days—opposition to abortion and tax increases, passionate enthusiasm for guns and the constitution—are too narrow to address America’s problems. Too many primary races are still purity contests. A victory in the Senate could exacerbate that problem: some Republican strategists fear that it would drive the party towards the extremes once more, and the voters towards Mrs. Clinton.
Wages, work and welfare
That would be a shame. America needs a decent opposition—one which argues for unleashing the country’s entrepreneurial side, not for the urgency of arming teachers. An important debate is under way about the role of the state in which the Republicans—at heart a small-government party—have a lot to say. Most of America’s governorships are now held by Republicans, usually of a problem-solving sort. From New Jersey to Wisconsin and Nevada, they have got elected by spending more time fixing things than fighting culture wars and have been experimenting with pro-business policies, introducing competition to America’s lacklustre schools, and cutting both red tape and taxes. A good bit of “the America that works” is in their hands, and their governments compare well with the bureaucracy created by some of Mr. Obama’s well-intentioned but lazily assembled laws.
In Washington too there are Republicans with good ideas, many of which are aimed at voters beyond the party’s base. Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida, is focusing on poorer workers, whose pay has stagnated in recent decades: he counters the Democrats’ proposal for much higher minimum wages with one to boost low incomes with wage subsidies. John Thune, a senator from South Dakota, wants to build a relocation allowance into unemployment benefits to help the long-term jobless move to where there are jobs. Such policies do not fit easily onto a bumper-sticker, but they could help persuade voters that the Republicans take the business of government seriously.
In the wake of Mr. Cantor’s defeat, there is a danger that the pragmatists will hunker down. Already immigration reform is being pronounced dead. Abandoning attempts to address America’s real problems would be a grave mistake for the party. Mr. Obama may be unpopular, but he is not running in 2016. If the Republicans present themselves to the electorate yet again as a bunch of angry, old, white men, they will lose—and deservedly so.