Why Republicans Hate Their Leaders: Eric Cantor Edition

There have been a lot of analyses of What Eric Cantor's Loss Means in the last 36 hours, all of which run the risk of over-generalizing from one off-year primary election in one particular district. But as I've said before, the internal conflict within the Republican Party is the defining political dynamic of this period in history, and it's as good an opportunity as any to assess its latest quivers and quakes. As a liberal, I'm at something of a disadvantage when examining this conflict, because although I can look at what conservatives do and what they say publicly, I don't have access to the things they say when they talk to each other. So it's always good to hear from those who do and can remind the rest of us of what conservatives are actually feeling. Sean Trende offers an important perspective:

First, analysts need to understand that the Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years. From the point of view of conservatives I've spoken with, the early- to mid-2000s look like this: Voters gave Republicans control of Congress and the presidency for the longest stretch since the 1920s.

And what do Republicans have to show for it? Temporary tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP, and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Basically, despite a historic opportunity to shrink government, almost everything that the GOP establishment achieved during that time moved the needle leftward on domestic policy. Probably the only unambiguous win for conservatives were the Roberts and Alito appointments to the Supreme Court; the former is viewed with suspicion today while the latter only came about after the base revolted against Harriet Miers.

The icing on the cake for conservatives is that these moves were justified through an argument that they were necessary to continue to win elections and take issues off the table for Democrats. Instead, Bush’s presidency was followed in 2008 by the most liberal Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by sizable Democratic House and Senate majorities.

You don't have to sympathize with this view, but if you don't understand it, you will never understand the Tea Party.

You may read that and say, "Are they crazy?" The view those of us on the left have of the Bush years is that conservatives got just about everything they wanted. They got huge tax cuts, scaled back environmental and labor regulations, a massive increase in defense spending, a couple of wars, the appointment of a cadre of true-believer judges nurtured by the Federalist Society, and nearly anything else they asked for.

And yes, the deficit ballooned under Bush, which is what happens when you cut taxes and increase spending. But until Barack Obama took office, the goal of shrinking government was something that conservatives always paid lip service to but never actually tried to do much about, which suggests that their commitment to it didn't go particularly far. Don't forget that Ronald Reagan, who walked the earth without sin, increased the deficit more than his thirty-nine predecessors combined, and that hasn't lessened the degree to which the right worships him.

But that's a liberal's perspective. Trende is right that, whether reasonable or not and no matter what they felt at the time, the standard view among the conservative base is now that the Bush presidency was a failure. And so they have embraced a permanent revolution, in which it's necessary to fight not just against Democrats but against Republicans as well, since every GOP leader is little more than a traitor waiting to be revealed.

If you're a Republican politician you can surf that tide, but it takes a lot of work. And it's almost impossible to do the things that most politicians try to do in Washington without alienating your base. Not that Eric Cantor was ever particularly sincere about representing the Tea Party, but the very act of joining the Republican leadership is enough to make clear to them that you're on the wrong side. People in the leadership organize things, try to master the system, and plan legislative strategy. All of that is suspect at best; the only true conservative, true conservatives will tell you, is the one pounding on the gates from the outside. As Brian Beutler wrote yesterday, "The great irony of this year's primary season, and indeed of conservative politics going back years now, is that the two Republican leaders most responsible for the party's insurgent-like opposition to the Obama agenda—Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are the base's most reviled."

As far as that activist base is concerned, every Republican politician should be nothing but an agent of chaos and destruction, or at least pretend that's who he is. It's not only incompatible with governing, it's barely compatible with holding office. Anyone who actually tries to accomplish anything is quickly turned from hero to traitor, as Marco Rubio was when he attempted to devise an immigration plan; Tea Partiers who once celebrated Rubio now view him with contempt. The only kind of legislator who can stay in their good graces is one who never bothers legislating, like Ted Cruz. Writing laws is for compromisers and turncoats; what matters is that the revolution continue forever.

Things can always change, but if this sentiment endures, it'll be interesting to see what happens the next time a Republican is elected president. Because whoever that president is, he will never be able to satisfy this base; indeed, by the very act of taking office and beginning to govern he will have assured them that betrayal is on its way. Their rage will endure. But maybe that's just how they like it. 

Comments

This differs only in degree from the attitude of the Democratic base (which is most of the people reading this page) to its leaders. Progressives, do you really like or trust the Obama Administration? Remember, "base" is defined not by the people who support the party, but by the people who will always vote for it because the other party is even more abhorrent to them.

Progressives like and support President Obama.

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