Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat last night dealt a blow to the conventional wisdom that this would be the year of the Republican establishment. Cantor, a key and visible voice on the right, was not the sort of politician who falls victim to a primary challenge. His position high up in the Republican leadership structure should have implied that he was almost untouchable, certainly in a year where midterm elections would mean major gains and victorious consolidations amongst Republicans, rather than defeats. And yet Cantor lost.
For those of us keeping our eyes in the levels of partisan intensity in Washington, this was not reassuring. Certainly, David Brat’s victory came as good news to many on the populist right: Cantor, despite his conservative bona fides, is certainly an “Establishment” figure, while on the left, many progressives took to social media to crow about how Cantor, who often comes off as unnecessarily snide, got what he deserved. Yet, Cantor’s record as a voter was solidly conservative. His primary challenge owes more to the generally totalizing character of the conservative base over the last few years than any real policy decisions. Cantor was a big-time conservative, he acted pretty conservative, and his flirtations with immigration policy were overblown. So, what does his defeat mean?
Ross Douthat writes in today’s Times in a piece titled “After Eric Cantor” that Cantor’s loss suggests a problem Cantor the politician, no conservative politics per se. Perhaps Cantor just couldn’t bridge the gap between the populist sentiment driving Obama-era conservative politics and populist policy that aims to enrich the “middle class” of America’s Main Street rather than those much reviled fat cats on Wall Street. If only, Douthat holds, conservatism could coalesce around a “good” economic populism rather than a “bad” populism. Douthat outlines what these dynamics are in an earlier op-ed, where the good populism consists of channeling Rand Paul on anger at government surveillance and security overreaches alongside tax plan’s like those of Utah Senator Mike Lee, which encourage increased tax relief for families. This also includes some kind of policy of real regulation to punish Wall Street for cronyism, corruption, and financial loss.
Douthat opines that, perhaps this victory is a good sign that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction. Or, at the very least, he hopes that it is. But I think Douthat’s assumption, which holds that there are two kinds of potentially agreeable populisms that are fighting for the soul of the Republican Party, is wrong in my estimation. In fact, it is a battle between the real populist sentiment of a conservative base (who take as their animating ethos anger and resentment at the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting bailouts (and who have, to some extent, matriculated some of that intensity to President Barack Obama and issues like Obamacare and the stimulus package) versus the traditional economic wing of political conservatism which focuses on generating freer markets by having a presumption against thick regulation in many areas of policy.
What these factions don’t necessarily share are goals. For example, Mike Lee’s tax plan aimed at boosting and stabilizing the American middle class might, in fact, do so, but at the expense of the deficit. . Lee’s goal is economic stability in the sense of making things easier for households. Rising budget deficits are, of course, a total non-starter for many on the traditional conservative side, who see the need to control spending as a political cudgel that can be used to facilitate connections in the minds of voters between their own economic anxieties and federal budget issues. Others, who come from the trickle down school, certainly claim to want to increase the economic welfare of the middle class as well but set certain federal baselines for this: hence the need to protection against budget deficits at all costs, demands for balanced budget amendments to the Constitution, and what have you.
None of this discussion within the realm of economic policy even begins to address cultural conservatives, who were already alienated at a formal level by the Tea Party’s insistence that they focus not on cultural issues but only on economics. While in practice the Tea Party’s broad opposition to government still allowed traditionalists conservatives to align themselves with the movement, what their role is in the current legislative majority in the House (and soon, lets face it, probably in the Senate) remains murky. Are conservatives angry about legalized gay marriage going to be placated with a tax credit for families?
In sum, the choice is not between good or bad populism. On one side is a populism, as The Weekly Standard hopes, that might offer various economic benefits for middle Americans by tax breaks on the middle class, the preservation or perhaps mild extension of social safety nets, and real regulation of white collar and financial crime. On the other side is a conservative populism of negativity which rages against Obamacare, budget deficits, and the denigration of the Constitution, but offers little in the way of a governing strategy to pair with these frustrations. Indeed, it is these conservatives who most often seem prone to engage in language about “makers and takers” or “economic losers,” suggesting the remedy comes not at the policy level but instead at the level of individual behavior. I do not think this gap between various conservative groups can be bridged, but instead will require some kind of at least medium term movement that will alienate the latter to strengthen the former. Cantor’s defeat signals prolonged partisanship, not a new political dawn with more action at hand.