The headline of a New York Times article responding to Eric Cantor’s startling primary defeat last night read, “Cantor’s Loss a Bad Omen for Moderates.” That would be true if there were still moderates in the House Republican Conference to speak of.
But there aren’t, and you can thank Eric Cantor for that.
House Republicans are now heavily skewed to the right, including a large wing that refuses to ever collaborate with President Obama or congressional Democrats on anything. Cantor, of course, was one of the chief architects of the GOP’s hardline politicking and far-right shift.
Cantor helped sink bipartisan debt deals, including the 2011 budget “grand bargain,” and engineered the Republican strategy of manufacturing fiscal crisis after crisis by putting a ransom on must-pass fiscal bills.
As Bill Burton told the New Yorker in 2011, “Cantor has had an outsized influence on how poisonously partisan Washington has been these last couple years.”
Cantor also was behind the Republican Party’s decision following the 2012 election disaster to resist any calls to moderate or begin working, even slightly, with Obama. Instead, the GOP moved to rebrand itself by attempting to change its image, beating back on the (accurate) perception that it had become an extremist, uncompromisingly ideological entity.
Vanity Fair just this month ran a piece on Cantor’s attempt to seem more moderate, respectable and bipartisan — even while sticking to his old extreme policies. “[I]f people see you for what you really are, that’s a failure on your part,” Michael Kinsley wrote of Cantor’s rebranding attempt. “Success is when people see you as what you wish you were.”
In March, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza noted that Cantor, “the creator of a strategy to oppose and obstruct the Obama agenda” who has a “reputation as a Tea Party leader,” only sought to make “short-term adjustments in public relations” rather than to temper his increasingly unpopular, and unhinged, fanaticism:
Since the 2012 elections, the Republicans have been divided between those who believe their policies are the problem and those who believe they just need better marketing—between those who believe they need to make better pizza and those who think they just need a more attractive box. Cantor, who is known among his colleagues as someone with strategic intelligence and a knack for political positioning, argues that it’s the box.
By refusing to temper — and even encouraging — the party’s sharp far-right swing, Cantor helped to fashion a party that views even the perception of bipartisanship as blasphemy.
Take immigration, for example: While Cantor was actually blocking the House from voting on immigration reform legislation, he still tried to make it seem that the party was open to some reforms, knowing that a majority of Americans and the quickly growing Latino community strongly favored reform legislation. Cantor tried to make the GOP’s strict stance against any immigration reform palatable to the public, which eventually allowed his primary challenger to campaign against his supposed support for “amnesty.”
After encouraging hard opposition to any fiscal deals with Obama unless the president caved to their every demand, Cantor paved the way for a GOP where simply voting to lift the debt limit in order to avoid economic disaster or supporting relief for hurricane victims gives you the much-dishonored title of RINO, “Republican In Name Only.”
Cantor pushed the party so far to the right that even political posturing that had little to no effect on actual policy was too much for GOP primary voters, and now the politician often seen as the more conservative alternative to Speaker Boehner has become a target of the militant wing he helped create.