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2014 Election

Elections 2014 – June Update: The Good, The Bad and The Disastrous

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Election 2014 June Update: The Good, The Bad and The Disastrous

I awoke today to the shocking news that Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, had been defeated in his primary by a Tea Party rival, David Brat[1]. Mr. Cantor is from my home state of Virginia, but to be honest, I didn’t even know he was in a contested race. Apparently, neither did Mr. Cantor.

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That reaction is shared by most of the political establishment. It did not take long for the shockwaves to travel the 100-odd miles from Richmond to Washington, D.C. The defeat of the Republican Number 2 in the House, Speaker Boehner’s likely successor, has highlighted the divisive split in the GOP’s ranks. Mr. Cantor was one of the few senior Republicans with a proven capability to “ride herd” over his fractious colleagues and to bridge the gap between the Tea Party zealots and the slightly less uncompromising “mainstream” Republicans. His defeat, and his new status as “dead man walking” until November, is sure to cause a conservative crisis on the Hill.

Republican strategists are even now running to offer analysis and some excuses of what went wrong. Many things must have gone wrong for an unknown economics professor from Randolph-Macon College with $40,000 in campaign funds to unseat a 13-year, well-known incumbent with over $2,000,000 in the bank account[2]. The primary wasn’t even close: Mr. Brat’s victory margin was 11 points, which is wider than the Chesapeake Bay in electoral terms. Mr. Cantor was too busy traveling the nation and drumming up funds and support for lesser known GOP House colleagues; Mr. Cantor made a mistake in using TV ads against Mr. Brat, which only raised the challenger’s profile far above what he could have achieved on his own.

The main factors in the defeat seem to be three-fold:

  1. Mr. Brat successfully painted his rival as “100% all-in” on immigration reform for daring to propose some minor changes to a conservative version of the DREAM Act;
  2. Mr. Brat was able to make charges of fiscal irresponsibility (!) stick for Mr. Cantor’s caving to pressure on the debt ceiling;
  3. Mr. Cantor had indeed become too distant from his Southern Richmond district and was punished for it by his electors.

My initial reaction was: good riddance. I have had many, many points of disagreement with Mr. Cantor over the years – especially as he is from the Old Dominion – and I dislike his abrasive style. On further reflection, my evaluation of Tuesday night’s results becomes more nuanced.

The Good

One very positive note is that Jacksonian democratic populism is alive and well in the United States. The oligarchy does not yet control all elections and money cannot yet buy any and all offices. Though gerrymandering and the recent Supreme Court decisions may have sunk Congress’ reputation lower than that of a New Orleans bawdy house run by a one-legged madam, the fact that a non-politician can win with a micro-budget, grass-roots campaign is highly encouraging for the future of our Republic. I might disagree with Mr. Brat’s political philosophy – certainly I disagree with almost all of his public positions so far – but I still support fundamental principle of the Tea Party and Coffee Party, which is citizens taking back political control from the staid establishment.

Putting the fear of God and the electorate into incumbents in both the House and Senate is, overall, a very good thing.

The Bad

Immigration reform is dead. A grand fiscal bargain is dead. In fact, any legislative compromise in Congress is now dead, at least until after the election in November.

Mr. Cantor’s “great betrayal” on immigration reform was in making some proposals to amend the Republican version of the Dream Act; proposals which never even reached the House floor since the GOP bill was never introduced. Thanks to this, every single Republican legislator with even the most distant and hypothetical fear of a primary challenge from the Tea Party will now be running for the cover of ultraconservatism, which of course begins by a visceral, knee-jerk rejection of anything the bears the taint of Unholy Trinity of Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

I don’t mean to imply that much would have been accomplished had Mr. Cantor defeated his challenger last night; but some low level of bipartisan agreement would have been reached on small, unknown, uncontroversial bills. Now, even that work is going to stop.

The Disastrous

Forget about this legislative session, with is DOA. The already bleak future of bipartisanship in Congress has probably been dealt a fatal blow. Either the Tea Party contingent in Congress will grow or the GOP will increasingly adopt a Tea Party-like stance in self-defense, both of which amount to the same thing: legislative rigor mortis. Tea Party representatives are, by their ideology and rhetoric, incapable of compromise, which is a fundamental principle of democracy. Their unshakeable conviction that they are utterly right in everything and that negotiation, accord or concessions are little better than playing Judas, amounts to totalitarianism. “My way or no way” is the guiding light of absolutism.

Republics and democracies in which such “democratic absolutism” took hold have always ended in either civil war or authoritarian government[3]. You have been warned.

Congress, intended to be the premier branch of government by our Founders, will continue to sink into irrelevance. As public approval of our legislators and the legislative body sinks into the single digits, the incentives and the public demands for the President to get things done by Executive Order will mount. We have already heard threats of this from a President frustrated with opposition obstructionism. Executive orders can serve a useful purpose, but the scope for their abuse is ample and growing. They are not subject to judicial review and Congress can only counter them with difficulty: there is a dangerous potential for government by fiat, which can in clear English be more simply called “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. It would be an invitation to tyranny, plain and simple: applauded when it happens to coincide with our own principles or interests, denounced otherwise.

execorders

It should be denounced, excoriated and opposed at all times – but that is where this country is inexorably moving. Actually, there is nothing “inexorable” about this phenomenon: the people have it in their power to end it at any time by reforming Congress and reforming ourselves. Gerrymandering must end; the open door to corruption in campaign finance must end; the catering of legislators to corporate and elite interests must end. None of these goals are impossible or even, for the average American, particularly controversial.

Most importantly however, is the reform of the American people. Compromise does not equate to betrayal. Deals with the opposition are not Faustian bargains with Old Scratch. The Great Reaction has gone on too long and much too far; it is now time for the Great Moderation. We need to return to the view that we are all Americans first. There are challengers waiting in the wings and hoping that we self-destruct.

Mr. Brat will now go on to face fellow Randolph-Macon professor and Democratic nominee for the 7th District, Jack Trammell. It is interesting to note that district is also being contested by a Libertarian candidate, James Carr, and a Democratic write-in candidate, Mike Dickinson, who failed to get the nod in the Democratic primaries. There may be more surprises yet in store from VA-7.


Sources and Notes:

[1] Robert Costa, Laura Vozzella and David A. Fahrenthold, “Eric Cantor succumbs to tea party challenger Tuesday,” The Washington Post, 11 June 2014

[2] According the the Center for Responsive Politics, Eric Cantor had $2MM in cash in the bank and had spent $8.8MM between his campaign committee and leadership PAC (21 May). His top contributors were Goldman Sachs ($240,200) and Blackstone Group ($208,000). Mr. Brat, in contrast, spent approximately $122,000 in total with an additional $40, 000 in cash on hand.

[3] The American Civil War, the English Civil War and Restoration, the Social Wars of the middle Roman Republic,

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