Frank Rich on the National Circus: Why Eric Cantor’s Defeat Wasn’t So Shocking

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Sitting duck Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the tea party offs Eric Cantor; what Cantor's loss means for immigration reform; and the rocky launch of candidate Hillary Clinton.

Eric Cantor, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, was ousted last night in his Republican party primary by an unknown economics professor named David Brat. Cantor's loss is one of the most shocking political upsets of recent years, not only because House leaders simply don't get ousted in primaries, but also because virtually no one in the national media seems to have considered the possibility that this could happen, much less predicted it. How the hell did Cantor lose? And what does this say about the state of the so-called GOP civil war? 
Cantor’s fall, and the fact that no one in the mainstream press saw it coming, is yet another indication that the biggest political story since Obama’s 2008 victory remains baffling to many. How many times can one say this? The radical right — whether it uses the tea party rubric or not — has seized control of one of America’s two major political parties. The repeated reports of the tea party’s demise are always premature. Back in the fall of 2012, in the weeks before Obama’s reelection, I wrote a piece titled “The Tea Party Will Win in the End” making this case and arguing that signs seemingly suggesting otherwise (the tea party dropping to a 25 percent approval rating in a September 2012 Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll; the demise of Michele Bachmann) were utterly misleading. After Todd Akin & Co. were routed that November, the tea party was dead again. When a fresh round of tea-party obituaries started appearing this spring — hey, Mitch McConnell won his primary, the Establishment is back! — they, too, should have been ignored. In terms of the big picture, McConnell’s victory — achieved only after he hired Rand Paul’s campaign manager and moved further to the right — was as politically meaningless as Mitt Romney’s ultimately winning the 2012 GOP nomination. The two thirds to three quarters of 2012 GOP voters who routinely supported the candidates to Mitt’s right in primary season were the true indicator of where the party is.

Brat is an Ayn Rand conservative. Speaking with Chuck Todd of NBC News this morning, he wouldn’t even endorse a federal minimum wage. He is unambiguously opposed to immigration reform. He speaks in a populist tone. “Dollars don’t vote,” Brat said after his victory — a reference to the fact that Cantor outspent him by 26-to-1 but also a slam of the Wall Street and K Street financial and corporate elites who fattened Cantor’s campaign piggy bank. Cantor, meanwhile, was everything Brat is not: He is a favorite of the financial industry. He tried to play both sides of his party’s immigration divide by simultaneously claiming to be in favor of some kind of reform and yet doing nothing to advance a bill in the House. He may be an exemplar of right-wing villainy to liberals, but to his own party’s faithful, he was a squish.

If you listen to Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, or other voices of the grass-roots right, the base’s loathing of Cantor and possibly his primary defeat would not have come as a shock. If your sole sampling of Republican opinion is the relatively establishmentarian Fox News, you might have missed it. You certainly would have missed it if you think today’s GOP is represented by the kind of Republicans who swarm around Morning Joe, where Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are touted daily as plausible GOP saviors who might somehow get the nomination. The Times, meanwhile, ran Brat’s name only once in the past year, and was so dumbfounded by his victory that it ran a piece of analysis last night under the headline: “Why Did Cantor Lose? Not Easy to Explain.” It is quite easy to explain if you’ve been paying attention to the history of the American right since Barry Goldwater’s insurgents first took down the GOP Establishment a half-century ago. Or if you had simply turned on talk radio in the past five years.

A major survey released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 62 percent of Americans favor providing undocumented immigrants with a way to become U.S. citizens. The president of the traditionally Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce said last month that if Congress doesn't pass immigration reform the GOP "shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016.” Does Cantor’s defeat mean that immigration reform is now doomed? How will this play out in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries? Should Bush, Christie, and Marco Rubio  just go ahead and cancel their exploratory committees?
The cliché du jour after Cantor’s defeat is that immigration reform is dead in Congress for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. This is not news. Immigration reform was dead long before Tuesday night’s election results; there were no credible signs that the Senate bill would move forward in the House, no matter what John Boehner, the Chamber of Commerce, or Republican corporate donors had to say about it. Immigration reform — a.k.a. “amnesty” — is the third rail of Republican politics. Rubio touched it, and immediately saw his presidential prospects downsized. Jeb Bush’s heartfelt declaration that migrating to America illegally may be an “act of love” assures that he will be booed by GOP primary voters much as Cantor was. Rand Paul has slyly kept on the side of the base — on this issue as on so much else — by voting against the Senate immigration reform bill even while throwing a few moderate rhetorical bones (America should be “more welcoming” to immigrants) to the pro-reform fat-cat donors who might write checks to his presidential campaign. This is yet another reason why Paul remains the man to beat in the GOP presidential field at this early stage. 

The roll-out of Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Hard Choices, has been a little rocky. Most pundits have reviewed the book as a bland and cautious political document (in contrast to former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates' hard-hitting Duty), and Clinton committed what is likely the first gaffe of her 2016 presidential campaign by telling ABC's Diane Sawyer that she and President Clinton were "not only dead broke, but in debt" when they left the White House in 2001. Do Clinton's book, its reception, and her "dead broke" comment tell us anything about the viability of her potential candidacy? And, in the age of the Internet and its exhaustive political coverage, do candidate memoirs still serve any purpose at all?
It may have taken a village of ghostwriters to write Clinton’s book, according to Paul Farhi’s account in the Washington Post. The point of the exercise in the digital age is not that anyone beyond the political press might actually crack it open but to reintroduce a product to the political marketplace with a huge marketing rollout. Mission accomplished. 

As for Clinton’s poor-mouthing of her circumstances to explain $200,000 speaking fees, it was an indication that she may be as gaffe-prone in 2016 as she was in 2008, when she cast herself as a brave survivor of Bosnian sniper fire. But this time around it may not matter. It also may not matter that a Clinton presidential campaign will once again be bereft of a driving cause or coherent vision. Or that her tenure as Secretary of State was so bland that even a sympathetic appraisal of her record (by Nicholas Kristof in the Times last Sunday) had to pad her résumé by saluting her prowess in persuading American ambassadors to use Twitter. 

But, as I say, none of this may matter in 2016. The Democratic candidate, whoever it is, will be running against a party whose positions on immigration, gay marriage, voting rights for minorities, and a woman’s rights to birth control and abortion continue to drive away virtually every constituency except old white men. Whatever the results in the low-turnout 2014 midterms — where the disproportionate power of the GOP base may soon elect a Mississippi Senator who calls Hispanic women “mamacitas” — this is not a party that can win a national election. It’s hard to see how any Hillary gaffe could screw this up in 2016. If for some reason she decides not to run, we will know that Karl Rove was right after all and she should have her head reexamined.