It’s hard to know what exactly to make of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's resounding defeat. The relative obscurity of his opponent, combined with his party position, suggests it contains at least an element of protest against the Republican establishment. Divining what constitutes the “Republican establishment” circa 2014 is a harder question.
Cantor was seen, especially recently, as part of the Republican Party's ever-shrinking governing wing. His opponent, a professor of economics named David Brat, attacked Cantor for voting to raise the debt ceiling and to end the government shutdown -- in effect for doing the bare minimum to enable government to function. And he attacked Cantor as a champion of immigration reform, including “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
This gave Cantor too much credit: His position on immigration reform was more confused than that. Unlike Senator Lindsey Graham, who easily won his Republican primary in South Carolina, Cantor never committed to reform and failed to defend it, let alone champion it, in his campaign. Indeed, pro-immigration groups refused to claim Cantor as their own, with one group condemning Cantor for “talking out of both sides of his mouth” on the issue.
Hypocrisy is not automatically disqualifying for a politician. Still, Cantor might have survived had he more clearly embraced either Tea Party radicalism or governing conservatism. By careening back and forth between them, he proved to be a credible representative of neither.
It could have been otherwise. In February 2013, weeks after President Barack Obama's second inauguration, Cantor delivered a 4,600-word speech at the American Enterprise Institute that promised a new beginning for House Republicans “based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families.”
We will advance proposals aimed at producing results in areas like education, health care, innovation and job growth. Our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government. Our goal -- to ensure every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.
It is my hope, that I can stand before you in two years and report back that our side, as well as the president’s, found within us the ability to set differences aside, to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who simply want their life to work again.
None of what Cantor envisioned came to pass. Next February, two years from his speech, Cantor will no longer be in the House. It's unclear what report he could have delivered in any case, or in what direction his party is now headed.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org.