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.
In contrast to the GOP’s problems in fielding a strong establishment candidate, 90 percent of Democrats approve of their party’s heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, who looks headed towards a coronation in 2016. To a remarkable degree, the parties have switched roles.
Partly, it’s because Democrats hold the White House. Unity is always easier when your party has one undisputed leader. But that’s not the whole story. In 1980, a Democrat occupied the Oval Office, and the party still faced a leadership crisis when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter. The Republicans faced one in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush.
The bigger reason the parties have switched cultures has to do with their perception of the future. Grassroots Democrats certainly get frustrated with their leaders, who they consider too cautious and too beholden to Wall Street. And were an unusually compelling candidate like Elizabeth Warren to run, many would rally behind her against the Clintonite establishment. But these anti-authoritarian impulses are held in check by a greater optimism about the direction of the country. Over the last few years, a younger, more tolerant, Democratic-leaning generation has helped elect the country’s first African-American president, helped make gay marriage mainstream and may soon help elect America’s first female president. As a result, although Democrats may be upset that Obama can’t pass immigration reform, they’re inclined to believe that because of demographic change, another Democratic president will soon get another chance.
Republican activists are more pessimistic. Even with a Republican president, they grouse, government kept growing. And unless something drastic changes, it will only get worse. When grassroots Democrats look at the growing percentage of Latinos, African Americans, and young people, they see a growing constituency for tolerance and social justice. When grassroots Republicans do, they see a growing constituency of takers, who want to turn America away from its exceptional nature.
It’s because Republican activists are more fearful of the future that they demand politicians willing to take extraordinary, Ted Cruz-like measures to reverse history’s course. Conservatives like Cantor, who accommodate themselves to demographic trends by supporting citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, must therefore be replaced with politicians who will stand militantly on principle.
The irony is that by preventing the GOP from adjusting to a younger, less white, less Anglo country, grassroots Republicans are hastening the very liberal dominance they fear. As Ezra Klein has noted, by defeating Cantor—and thus making congressional Republicans too afraid to pass immigration reform—the GOP just makes it more likely Latinos will flock to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Like National Review at its founding in 1955, the GOP base “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” And, in this case, the people who have no patience are the very people Republicans must win if they are ever to hold the presidency again.