Eric Cantor’s Defeat is a Shaft of Light in Dark Political Times

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By Jurek Martin / June 12, 2014

The House majority leader’s defeat disproves the hypothesis that money is all there is

These had not been the best of times in America. A seemingly endless round of shootings in public places – schools, Walmarts, pizza parlours – is bad enough. Events in Iraq and Syria, now one miasma of misery and violence, compound the gloom. Even good economic news is overshadowed by what looks like another high-tech stock market bubble of rampant speculation.

But on Tuesday there was a sudden, unexpected shaft of light. Eric Cantor, number two Republican in the House of Representatives and a possible next speaker, lost a primary election in Virginia to an unheralded and underfunded libertarian economics professor, David Brat, who wants to take the country back in time a good 200 years. Yet again, the result demonstrated that no establishment politician is safe while the insurgent right is on the rampage, crusading under its anti-immigration banner.

So why is this good news? First, the disappearance of Mr Cantor – arrogant, ambitious beyond belief and a conservative ideologue of the most dangerous kind because he is not stupid – can only help restore the tattered fabric of civic and political dialogue. Prof Brat will not improve it but he is a minnow while Mr Cantor is, or was, a seriously big shark.

Second, his departure frees up John Boehner, the speaker of the House, to lay before his chamber the comprehensive immigration reform bill already passed by the Senate. He has often said he wants to, because he knows his party’s anti-immigrant stance greatly reduces its chances of ever winning a national election in which new Americans vote in ever greater numbers.

But he has lacked either the guts or the imagination to face down the hard line conservative bloc, which danced more to Mr Cantor’s tune than his own. If I were him, I’d bring up the bill tomorrow. It may lose or it may be carried with Democratic support, but it will at least clear the air on one of the great issues of our time.

There is much talk that Mr Boehner is thinking of stepping down anyway, worn out by the task of herding the wildcats that constitute his party. At the very least, he may be challenged for the speakership, assuming the Republicans retain control of the House in November’s midterm elections – if not, in the wake of his defeat, by Mr Cantor then by a fistful of others even further to the right than his deputy.

What better way to leave a legacy than an act of brave leadership, going against his own party’s xenophobic grain. It might even in the longer haul save the party from itself. Mr Boehner could then exit trailing clouds of glory, even at the cost of committing party apostasy.

There is a third reason to take comfort in Mr Cantor’s defeat. He spent about $5m on his campaign, 20 times more than Prof Brat. According to one report, his restaurant entertainment expenses, largely for his army of well-paid advisers, nearly equalled his opponent’s total outlays. Taken at face value, this disproves the hypothesis that money – especially out-of-state funding brought in by the truckload by shadowy donors protected by crass Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United, which in 2010 removed legal restraints on financial contributions from outside groups – is all there is in politics.

In Mississippi Thad Cochran, the entrenched Republican senator awash in establishment money, has been forced into a run-off he may well lose by a Tea Party-backed candidate. The insurgent also won a lot of out-of-state funding, from groups such as the Washington-based Club for Growth, but much less than the incumbent.

If it were not Mississippi, arguably the most reactionary state in the union, the 30-year Republican hold on the seat might be in danger in November, as was proved to be the case in more representative states such as Indiana, Kansas, Nevada and Delaware in the last two election cycles, when Tea Party candidates went down in the flames of their own extremism.

Of course, it is wishful thinking to imagine American politics will get off the money train – just as it is to hope that the hail of bullets that so often take lives in schools and shops will move the body politic to do anything serious about guns. A frustrated President Barack Obama summed it up well this week by saying that other countries had plenty of crazy people but didn’t have the ammunition piled up to implement their madness.

But the National Rifle Association will not allow this to change. Recently it even took down from its website a post mildly critical of rallies in which people provocatively flaunt their guns. Ironically, Mr Cantor liked to provoke as well – and now he has been taken down; eaten, as it were, by the revolution he helped foment.