The big message from Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss isn’t about immigration or the Tea Party. It’s about the unprecedented crisis of authority in today’s GOP.
Think about it. Cantor’s boss, John Boehner is, according to Nancy Pelosi, “the weakest speaker in history.” Less than 50 percent of Republicans approve of his performance. Over the last two years, he has repeatedly retreated in the face of opposition from rank-and-file conservatives who treat him with barely disguised disdain. Until the defeat of Cantor, his most likely heir apparent, it was widely assumed that he would soon either step—or be pushed—aside soon.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell only avoided Cantor’s fate by attaching himself to his Kentucky colleague Rand Paul, whose upstart Senate candidacy McConnell had opposed. Like Boehner, McConnell is treated with striking disrespect in his own caucus. Last summer, after a deal to permit votes on several, long-delayed judicial nominees, McConnell admitted to Senate Republicans that it had been negotiated behind his back. If that wasn’t humiliating enough, Tennessee’s Bob Corker interrupted McConnell’s protestations of ignorance by yelling “bullshit.” As Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen have noted in Politico, “Most young conservatives [in Congress] … get more mileage from snubbing their leaders” than supporting them.
The GOP’s leadership crisis extends beyond Congress. In recent cycles, Republican presidential primaries have been relatively orderly affairs where the party establishment rallies around a frontrunner—often the person who came in second the last time (Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney)—who holds off right-wing challengers on his way to the nomination. This year, however, that kind of elite control looks unlikely. Chris Christie, the first choice of many GOP leaders, is so wounded that even if he runs, he will not be the frontrunner. Some donors are rallying behind Jeb Bush. If he does not run, they may turn to Marco Rubio. But the road to the GOP nomination runs through Iowa and South Carolina, whose Republican activists resemble the anti-establishment, talk-radio-powered folks who knocked off Cantor. If those activists helped defeat Cantor merely for supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrant children, think how they’ll react to Bush or Rubio, who support a path to citizenship for their parents as well.
In the Democratic Party, by contrast—which has enjoyed a reputation for organizational anarchy since the days of Will Rogers—party hierarchies are clear and largely unchallenged. A February Pew poll found that Democrats were more than 20 points more likely than Republicans to say their party’s leaders stand up for party principles. And the consequences are plain to see.
There is no talk of a revolt against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, even though she has failed to wrest back the House, or of a coup against Majority Leader Harry Reid, even though Democrats may soon lose the Senate. And elected Democrats—unlike Republicans—don’t worry about primary challenges from ideological zealots. In New York, the bluest of blue states, progressives couldn’t even mount a token challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has made the one percent his political base.