Let’s play a parlor game. Quick: What words come to mind when you think of the House political leadership?
For John Boehner, you’d probably say “country club” or “insider.” Paul Ryan would conjure up “wonk” or “budget.” “Motherhood” or “pro-life” would suffice for Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
What about Eric Cantor? He’s the second-most powerful Republican congressman and, before Tuesday, was likely the next speaker of the House of Representatives. Yet adjectives and nouns don’t exactly plummet from the clouds when his name is mentioned. And while you might dislike Boehner’s or Ryan’s personas, they at least have public identities that they’ve owned and embraced.
With Cantor you can rack your brain for hours, and chances are you’ll come up with only one felicitous descriptor: ambitious. Whatever mysteries swirled around Cantor, we know that he had boundless ambition, to the point of possibly challenging Boehner for the speaker’s gavel. And that was his biggest problem. Eric Cantor desperately wanted to lead the people’s house, but he never gave the people any reason to support him.
Cantor began the Obama administration as a fairly pugnacious conservative. He led the charge against the president’s stimulus package in 2009, stiffening his colleagues’ knees and ensuring that it passed without a single Republican vote. It was Cantor who later proposed, at a GOP retreat in Baltimore with the newly elected class of 2010, that Republicans use the debt ceiling as leverage to extract spending cuts from the White House.
Cantor’s tension with Boehner leaked into the press after Boehner was caught holding surreptitious negotiations with the White House over the debt ceiling. Enraged that Boehner was considering ever-higher tax increases as part of a package, Cantor simultaneously battled the White House and tried to nudge Boehner away from a grand bargain. After Obama scuttled a deal he’d reached with Boehner and petulantly demanded more tax hikes, the negotiations fell apart, and Cantor briefly looked vindicated.
Back then the word you might have applied to Cantor was “conservative”—the Tea Party mole in the Republican leadership. But the debt ceiling fight also seemed to chasten Cantor, vividly illustrating the costs of toying with default and feuding with your boss. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Cantor changed his tune. He would moderate his tone and serve as Boehner’s trusty lieutenant. When Boehner sacked several Tea Party congressmen from their committees, including Justin Amash and Tim Huelskamp, the message was clear: the days of a Cantor-led insurgency were over.
Cantor spent the next eighteen months repeatedly putting himself at odds with his own caucus, clamoring for immigration reform, stumping for American involvement in Syria, and supporting the corpulent farm bill that passed this year. In March he flew to a ritzy hotel in Florida to strategize with the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group with the stated goal of “bolster[ing] our incumbents who are under attack from the far right.”
Throughout all this, Cantor seemed to be trying on new identities like they were sports coats. There was Young Gun Eric Cantor, one of three fresh-faced members of the Young Guns committee of Republicans along with Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. There was Wonk Cantor, identified as “a serious wonk” in a pseudo-promotional Politico piece. There was Reform Conservative Cantor, who just last month touted middle-class-oriented policy efforts at the American Enterprise Institute. Basically if there was a hot new right-of-center show in town, Eric Cantor would parachute onto the stage and pretend like he’d been there from the beginning.
The only common denominator here was ambition. If it advanced Cantor’s goal of becoming speaker, he would try it. This ultimately left him on a tightrope, still on good terms with old conservative redoubts like the Republican Study Committee, but also in lockstep with leadership. It was a wire he walked delicately and skillfully—until Tuesday night when voters in his district gave him a rough shove.
Cantor’s astonishing loss, the first electoral takedown of a House majority leader since the position was created in 1899, was initially pinned on his support for immigration reform. But that’s an incomplete picture. Accounts from Cantor’s constituents portray him as an insider absorbed in national politics who cared little for his home district. Somewhere along the way, the Washington operator lost touch with Virginia. He paid dearly for it.
Cantor’s constituents, then, didn’t just reject immigration reform or Republican leadership or even Cantor himself. They rejected the entire bacchanal—Washington, backrooms, political games, K Street, consulting firms, talking points, cocktails. It was in that world that Cantor had ambitions, and it was those ambitions that ultimately ruined him. Last night on Fox News, Dave Brat ticked off more fresh ideas in a single interview than Eric Cantor had all year. For voters, the contrast was stark.
Since Congress won’t enact term limits, the electorate seems to have taken it upon themselves to toss out those who they perceive as too close to the political class. Incumbents can survive this anger, but it’s usually when they have weak opponents (Lindsey Graham) or spend enormous sums of money (Mitch McConnell). Is there a lesson in Cantor’s loss? How about we start by not nominating Jeb Bush in 2016?