The New Nihilism Is Stifling the Republican Party

It's not just Eric Cantor. Reformist conservatives have good ideas, but until they drop the idea that all government is bad, they'll never be realistic.

Adrees Latif/Reuters

Before nonagenarian Representative Ralph Hall lost his seat in a Republican primary in Texas, no incumbent had been defeated in primaries this year, leading to the dominant press and pundit narrative: The Republican Empire Strikes Back. Oops. Now with the stunning defeat of Eric Cantor, we have narrative whiplash: The Return of the Tea Party.

Narratives are nice, clean, and easy, but the world is far messier. Cantor's defeat is huge, but it does not reflect a universal trend; after all, South Carolina's Republicans—who threw out free-marketer Bob Inglis because he was not conservative enough, who gave us Jim DeMint, and who made sure that many local GOP chapters denounced Lindsey Graham as a socialist—also gave Graham a comfortable margin as he cruised to renomination.

Senator Thad Cochran may well lose his renomination in Mississippi, but the batting average for "establishment" Republicans this year will still be over .900. And yet, there are serious and real reverberations here. For one thing, politicians are more moved by vivid example than overall statistics. All it took was one Bob Bennett in Utah to move Senate Republicans significantly to the right in attitude, agenda, and rhetoric. The assault on Cantor as a supporter of amnesty may not have been the main reason for his defeat, but we can be sure that the word "legalization" will not cross the lips of Republicans of many stripes in the months to come, except as an epithet.

The main lesson here may be the populist one. The Tea Party movement is not a Republican movement, or a conservative movement. It is radical, anti-institutional, anti-leadership, antigovernment. It is driven by suspicion of the motives and actions of all leaders, including those in the Republican Party. Cantor's glaringly obvious personal ambition fed those suspicions, but his defeat was a defeat for the broader establishment, which compromises too readily and feeds its own interests first. That attitude, by the way, also is embodied in many of the big donors to candidates and outside groups, meaning it represents an ongoing serious headache for party leaders.

I wrote my post before Cantor's defeat, on the new ideas springing up to give conservatism a new policy foundation, as a vehicle for changing the Republican Party's course. Such a change doesn't have to start with officeholders or party officials. It can instead be led by policy intellectuals identifying with or attached to the party; this was the case with the Democratic Leadership Council and the related Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s; ideas that flowed from DCL and PPI, and the alliances they built with receptive governors, mayors, and lawmakers, helped provide a mainstream and centrist base for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Now, a group of conservative intellectuals, many at my own institution, are trying to do the same thing for the Republican Party.

The prime salvo here is the recently released Room to Grow, not a full-fledged book with detailed policies but a set of essays by smart analysts that lay out proposals and ideas across a range of policy areas. David Brooks earlier this week called it "the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American Right has produced this century." That is a bit extravagant, but in fact, Room to Grow is a serious document, with a framework to justify the direction of the ideas and a number of interesting and constructive proposals, some of which (on jobs and the long-term unemployment problem) I have written about before.

I am not going to write either a detailed review of the volume or a detailed critique of many of the ideas, some of which are naturally more constructive and plausible than others. What interests me the most at this point is whether this initiative parallels the efforts of the DLC and PPI, and how the ideas have been embraced, or not, by the policymakers and politicians who will have to buy in to the framework and the specifics to make this more than an academic exercise.

A troubling feature of the volume, underscoring the turbulent waters reflecting in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, is in the almost-obligatory way the various authors have to draw sharp, and strained, contrasts with "the left." In virtually every essay, instead of pointing out how the ideas could form the basis of a new center, there is a caricatured portrait of the left that suggests that the conservative ideas are a 180-degree contrast with the opposition, and not approaches along a continuum that can find that common ground somewhere in or near the middle. In fact, as Jonathan Chait and E.J. Dionne have pointed out, several of the ideas championed in Room to Grow, such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, have been embraced or supported by Barack Obama, who has operated far more as a pragmatic progressive than a radical leftist. That is a reality ignored, and certainly not championed, in the monograph. Drawing the contrast is a useful rhetorical tool, but also suggests that it is a price the authors decided to pay to gain the attention of partisans and ideologues who have no desire to embrace ideas that might possibly be supported by Obama.

The deeper problem here is that the zeitgeist of the Republican Party has moved so sharply not just to the right, but to a radical stance, with two components. The first is baked into the broader commentary, from cable news to talk radio to blogs—if Obama is for it, we have to be against it. Room to Grow has nothing positive to say about any element of Obamacare, criticizes the Common Core (even as it approves the idea of serious standards), and ignores key policy areas like infrastructure, energy conservation, climate change, and even immigration. But that is reflective of a deeper reaction.

Most Republicans running in 2014 carefully avoid saying that there are parts of the Affordable Care Act we ought to keep, or that we should mend it. And we now see governors like Bobby Jindal who once enthusiastically supported Common Core denouncing it to curry favor with "the base." That Cantor voted to reopen the government led by Obama, and voted to raise the debt ceiling during Obama's term, was Exhibit A for radicals.

The second and more-significant component, seen most vividly recently not in Virginia but at the Republican Convention in Texas, is the almost nihilistic attitude that all government is bad—that any attempt to find "solutions" to problems that in any way involve government is wrong and almost evil, unless it focuses monomaniacally on cutting spending and cutting government. David Brooks's critique of Room to Grow is that it fails to acknowledge that there are times when an active government, not just a decentralized and smaller one, will be necessary. But even a decentralized government is too much government for many of those who dominate caucuses, conventions, primaries, funding, and discourse on the right.

Cantor understood the energy behind the new nihilism; in fact, he encouraged and exploited it in 2010 to help his party gain the majority and make him leader. But he wasn't able to curb it for his own preservation. Cantor and his leadership colleagues have loved the optics of a new agenda far more than actually promoting it in concrete terms—because doing so in a serious way divides the party, inflames the base and undermines the leadership for its apostasy in embracing solutions that mean more of the same—more government, even if it is less than we have now. If anything, Cantor's defeat will make leaders even more gun-shy about moving to real solutions or new approaches.

The fact is that, even before Cantor's defeat, Republican House and Senate leaders had shown no interest in operationalizing a bold or innovative policy agenda. Maybe that is a short-term strategy, based on the belief that success in the midterms ahead will be driven far more by a reaction against the Obama status quo than on a contrast with an alternative agenda. And maybe, as with the Democrats in 1992, the approach changes with the nomination in 2016 of a presidential candidate who makes the Room to Grow ideas the centerpiece of his or her campaign and policy agenda—that would mean, of all the possibilities, only Jeb Bush.

But given the current dynamics of the Republican Party, my guess is that the likelihood of a Bush nomination or presidency is slim. In our book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, Tom Mann and I characterized the Republican Party as an insurgent outlier. In that party, as it is now constituted, new ideas coming from pointy-headed intellectuals (who will not be viewed as saviors by nihilists) are going to require a whole lot more time to germinate.