Political Hay

Dave Brat and the Return of the Constitution

Eric Cantor loses to the Gipper.

By 6.12.14

Send to Kindle

From hundreds of people in every part of the country, I heard complaints about how the ever-expanding federal government was encroaching on liberties we’d always taken for granted. I heard it so often that after a while I became convinced that some of our fundamental freedoms were in jeopardy because of the emergence of a permanent government never envisioned by the framers of the Constitution: a federal bureaucracy that was becoming so powerful it was able to set policy and thwart the desires not only of ordinary citizens, but their elected representatives in Congress.

So wrote Ronald Reagan of the Constitution in his memoirs as he recalled what he learned when touring General Electric plants as the company spokesman in the 1950s and early 1960s. Decades after those tours, as he delivered his final State of the Union address in 1988, now-President Reagan returned to the point, saying:

We’re for limited government because we understand, as the Founding Fathers did, that it is the best way of ensuring personal liberty and empowering the individual so that every American of every race and region shares fully in the flowering of American prosperity and freedom. 

There is a direct connection between what President Reagan was saying and what Dave Brat made the centerpiece of his winning campaign over Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And it goes right to the heart of the problem conservatives have with the GOP Establishment. 

In his book the Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989, Reagan biographer Steven Hayward described the mindset that Virginia voters clearly saw with Cantor this way:

By 1980 many Republicans in Washington could be considered victims of the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize with their captors. Having been in the minority for so long, many Washington Republicans had come to absorb the premises of establishment liberalism, preferring to offer a low-budget version of the Democratic platform.

Where to start here? Let’s go with the Constitution.

One news story after another in the wake of Brat’s victory mentioned the role of talk radio in Cantor’s undoing. Specifically named are Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Both have been pounding away on Cantor and the House GOP Leadership. Ingraham, to her immense credit, boldly went into the district to personally help rally Brat voters. Brat appeared three times on Levin’s show. 

But Ingraham and Levin were not operating in a vacuum. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, too, havs been relentless in their criticism of the House GOP Leadership.

The fact here is that what Ronald Reagan spent an entire political career discussing — the centrality of the Constitution to the fight against permanent government — is still very much at the heart of the beliefs of the GOP’s conservative base, as evidenced on talk radio and in precincts outside the Beltway. And as we have noted in this space many times, the GOP Establishment not only has turned its back on Reagan (while paying the Gipper lavish lip service) but has in essence gone out of its way to effectively declare war on Reagan and the idea that the Constitution must be at the center of American government. This, as Mr. Brat said Tuesday night on Hannity, was at the center of the Brat campaign, along with Reaganesque appeals to a free market economy and peace through strength. To the extent that immigration — amnesty — played a role here it is precisely because Brat tied it to the Constitution.

In the case of Mark Levin, we’re not just talking about his radio show. In the last few years Mark has turned out one bestseller after another centering on the importance of the Constitution in preserving liberty. From Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America to Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto to Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America to The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic, Levin’s books stirred what might fairly be called a constitutional renewal movement. Bringing the nation’s founding document again front and center in the nation’s consciousness as Reagan once did. And this clearly hit home in places like Eric Cantor’s Virginia, home to James Madison, the Founder generally considered the “father” of the Constitution.

Mark Levin had an unlikely ally: President Obama. Mr. Obama’s relentless efforts to “transform” the country, taking it away from its constitutional roots and replacing it with what Mark has accurately called “post-Constitutional America” drew serious backlash. As time moved on, with one average American after another losing health insurance because Obamacare or losing a job or property rights because of an EPA regulation or even losing First Amendment rights to freedom of religion under the HHS contraception mandate, the direct relationship between the Constitution and individual liberty was quite vividly made.

Which brings us round to the GOP Establishment, specifically the House GOP leadership of Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor.

Story after story is now pouring out detailing Cantor’s war with the base of the party in his own district.

Cantor made a point of thumbing his nose at Reagan conservatives with his attendance at a fundraising event for the vividly anti-Reagan Republican Main Street Partnership, run by Boehner ally and former Republican Congressman Rep. Steve LaTourette. LaTourette is an Establishment favorite, the embodiment of what Reagan called the “fraternal order” Republican.

This move was spectacularly provocative. It drew this blunt letter from Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica: 

April 8, 2014 5:03 pm

Dear Majority Leader Cantor:

Conservative leaders were stunned to learn that you will be headlining a conference in Florida this weekend that is, purely and simply, a direct attack on Tea Party conservatives. Worse still, this event is sponsored in part by ultra-liberal financier/activist George Soros and organized labor — both of which have openly, repeatedly — and often viciously — waged war on conservatives and Republicans for years.

What has possessed you to headline this event? Do you think so little of conservatives that you would directly insult them by attending?

Since Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election a substantial rift has opened between the GOP’s congressional leadership and rank-and-file Republicans, grassroots conservatives and Tea Party supporters — the very activists who provided the energy, enthusiasm and mobilization that fueled the historic Republican victory in 2010 and gave you and your colleagues the House majority you hold today. You would not be Majority Leader today but for Tea Party conservatives. And you’re headlining an event sponsored by a leftist organization committed to its destruction.

As we head in to midterm elections later this year, it would seem incumbent upon Republican leaders to do everything they can to actually heal this rift. Instead you are widening it further.

It is our understanding that Speaker John Boehner had planned to attend but is no longer doing so. We expect no less from you. Attending this event shows you are siding with the Democrat donors, unions, and other Soros-backed groups who have contributed over $1 million to attack conservatives.

Your position makes you one of the top Republican leaders in the country and places extraordinary responsibility upon you to honor the commitments you made to those who worked so hard to provide Republicans the majority, and you the position of Majority Leader. Aligning yourself with extreme opponents of the Republican Party would be an astonishing turn of events — with consequences.

Mr. Leader: Don’t aid and abet sworn opponents of conservatives. If you do it will cause irreparable damage. If your position is that grassroots conservatives and Tea Party supporters no longer belong in the Republican Party then it will permanently destroy any credibility you have left with conservatives. Without conservatives the GOP will also collapse. Leader Cantor, back out of this event.

Sincerely,

L. Brent Bozell III
Chairman, ForAmerica

Barely a week before the Bozell letter to Cantor was this seriously prescient March headline in the Tea Party News:

John Boehner and Eric Cantor are Committing Political Suicide; Details Here:

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is offering his support to a PAC whose mission is to destroy the Tea Party and other conservatives within the Republican Party. Joining him in this effort are Eric Cantor and 26 other members of the GOP. These Republican leaders will attend a swanky $5,000 per person event at the Ritz Carlton at Amelia Island in Florida.

And political suicide it was for Cantor. He would not listen, he did not listen — and he is now headed for the exits.

But there’s more here.

The other day, this article titled “A Practical Plan for Recalibrating Conservatism” by Hoover senior fellow Peter Berkowitz appeared in Real Clear Politics. The piece was in part an endorsement of a new e-book Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, written by a collection of conservative think-tankers. The Berkowitz piece (and earlier pieces like this one, “A Conservative's Case for Moderation”and this one, “Kibbe’s Tea Party Rx Lacks Key Ingredient: Compromise,” that “Kibbe” being Matt Kibbe of the Tea Party aligned Freedom Works) says, among other things: “Conservatives rightly take inspiration from the achievements of Ronald Reagan, but our realities are not identical to those to which conservative public policy, under President Reagan’s leadership, responded to successfully in the 1980s.”

The e-book cited by Berkowitz has a section on K-12 education that says “Conservatives should embrace a legitimate, limited federal role in schooling.” In the section on higher education it reads: “Conservatives have an opportunity to counter the Left’s shortsighted, counterproductive agenda, but only if they put forth a concrete alternative.” Meaning: involve the federal government.

The section on employment reads in part: 

Using government to help workers connect with jobs could help more Americans earn their own success without requiring the government to manage complicated programs. These policies advance economic liberty and use limited but energetic government action to advance conservative goals. 

One could go on, but essentially what is on display here is what Barry Goldwater used to refer to as the “dime store New Deal” or, in Reagan biographer Hayward’s phrase, “Stockholm syndrome.” The Room to Grow e-book is moderate Republicanism in think tank form. Former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner is involved (surprise!) with this latest recycling of the moderate utopia and predictably writes this:

As a starting point, conservatives need to set aside their habit of speaking as if the very same solutions we offered a generation ago would work equally well today. The truth is that many conservative policies worked in the 1980s—but conditions have changed, often dramatically, and conservatives haven’t changed sufficiently with them.

This is, in truth, the same kind of thing that was said about Reagan when he was running for president. Gerald Ford called Reagan “extreme” thought him “naive” about the role of government, with George H.W. Bush haranguing him for “voodoo economics.” In reality, moderate Republicanism — whether appearing in the form of the Main Street Partnership or in that think tank e-book or, yes, in the two Bush presidencies not to mention the non-presidencies of a Romney, McCain, Dole or Dewey — is a dead-end philosophy that performs abysmally in presidential elections. Not to mention that it perpetually plays to a dynamic that has a liberal successor to a Republican moderate taking whatever program and then expanding it. This is what Margaret Thatcher called the “socialist ratchet” — with a leftist government establishing a government program, a moderate government tinkering at the edges, then being succeeded by another leftist government that moves things even further left. The realization that Eric Cantor was playing this game has now upended the House Majority Leader.

Make no mistake. The Tea Party is not dead, and Reagan conservatism lives.

Rush Limbaugh wondered aloud yesterday whether the GOP Establishment will learn anything from what happened to Cantor — scuttling amnesty, for example — or whether they will quietly ratchet up the war that is being conducted on the party’s base. The Reagan base.

Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that Dave Brat is not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The Constitution is back, big time. And soon-to-be ex-Majority Leader Cantor will have lots of time to read it.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.