It was impossible to imagine how Eric Cantor was going to remain House majority leader longer than a few more weeks. The biggest surprise is that he’s decided to hang on to his job title, if not really the job’s duties, until the end of July.
By getting soundly defeated in his Republican primary, Cantor made history as the most prominent member ever spurned by his own party for re-election. But that defeat transformed him on Wednesday into something much more immediately consequential: The most tangibly toothless person in the congressional leadership in more than a century.
Gaining the confidence of your party is the basic prerequisite for getting into the Hill hierarchy. Knowing where your caucus wants to be ideologically, and balancing that against where it needs to be, is a central requirement for staying on the leadership team. Making sure your colleagues remain beholden to you, legislatively and politically, is essential for success in the work — which can be described in blunt political terms as the daily gaining and spending of power.
For Cantor, all of that disappeared in a matter of hours on Tuesday, when his bid for an eighth term was rejected by 56 percent of the voters who had been his political base in central Virginia .
The comparison is far from perfect, but that was the closest thing American politics has seen in a long time to a parliamentary vote of no confidence. And when a prime minister is defeated in one of those, he is duty bound to offer his resignation.
A leader would be foolhardy to do otherwise, because such elections immediately drain the loser of every ounce of political capital. If getting to the top and staying there in Washington is all about attaining an ample supply of “the juice” and then doling it out in right measure, Cantor had been one of the Capitol’s most adept players for almost a dozen years, since he was appointed chief deputy whip at the start of his second term.
But on Wednesday morning, as he hobbled up Interstate 95 to confront six lame duck months in Congress, the realization crystallized that he had absolutely no juice at all. There was no longer any reason for fellow House Republicans to pay attention to anything he said, or to consider doing anything he would request . He was never again going to be a star attraction at a fundraiser for his party or his colleagues, because big-money Republican voices and corporate players have lost any motivation for currying his favor.
In other words, Cantor returned to wield less clout than even the ranking minority Democrat on the most obscure subcommittee.
He was open to be ridiculed by the same Republicans who, only a day earlier, feared losing the blessing of the likeliest next speaker of the House, or genuinely respected his legislative tactical skill, or only wanted his help as a rainmaker of campaign cash.
Rank-and-file members could begin declaring with impunity that they never really approved of his ideas for a kinder and gentler GOP, one concerned with middle-class economic advancement and with getting to “yes” on an immigration overhaul before the party is totally spurned by Latino voters for a generation or longer.
And they could openly enjoy the Schadenfreude of deconstructing the electoral downfall of a purported campaign maestro — marveling time and again about his ridiculously off-the-mark internal polling and his ill-considered allocations of time and resources. (The favorite anecdotes were about how Cantor spent primary election day on Capitol Hill instead of in Richmond, and about how he paid almost as much to the steakhouses where he collected much of his $5 million war chest as his opponent, economics professor Dave Brat , spent to engineer the biggest congressional upset in many years.)
In addition to all the sniping that filled the new power vacuum, several members served notice they were planning campaigns to move up — or onto — the House GOP leadership ladder just as soon as Cantor stepped off. The palace may have been stunned by the unexpected political death of the crown prince , but the most ambitious courtiers were unwilling to wait to reveal their next moves until the scheduling of the metaphorical funeral.
It did not take Cantor more than a few hours to realize all this, and by early afternoon he’d decided to let go of his newly powerless position of power.
The brevity of his decision-making process was consistent with the behavior of the past three House GOP elders who concluded their juice had run dry. In 1998, Newt Gingrich proffered his resignation as speaker just two days after midterm election losses proved the drive to impeach President Bill Clinton was a political loser. One month later, Robert L. Livingston renounced his nomination to succeed Gingrich on the same day an extramarital affair exposed him as the wrong person for the job at that time. And in 2006, the ethically embroiled Tom DeLay gave up plans for a comeback campaign for majority leader just as soon as a bloc of his former allies announced they could never vote for him again.
Cantor is breaking with precedent, though, by planning to remain in his ornate Capitol leadership suite for the next seven weeks.
After that, his schedule will probably be as light as it’s been since 1991, when he was a 28-year-old working in the family real estate business and campaigning for an open seat in Virginia House of Delegates. He will have plenty of time for reveries about how well he seemed to be navigating both sides of the deepening GOP civil war to become Speaker John A. Boehner’s heir apparent. And he will have time, too, for nightmares about how someone with a 95 percent lifetime approval score from the American Conservative Union, along with a 94 percent career approval rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could be ousted for being insufficiently conservative.
The dreams may converge on the same ending: He and his fellow “Young Guns” spawned the tea party breed, and the beast grew big enough that it felt comfortable devouring him.
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