For the GOP, re-evaluation time after Eric Cantor’s upset

06/11/2014 4:24 PM

06/11/2014 4:35 PM

The morning after, at breakfast at the Republicans’ Capitol Hill Club, Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte was, as befits one of Washington’s grown-ups, measured in his reaction to what 36,120 Virginia voters did the day before. It would, he says, be wise “to take a step back and a deep breath until we find out how everyone” — meaning, especially, House Republicans — “reacts to this.” By “this” he indicates, with a wave of a hand, the one-word headline on Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress: “Stunner.”

Roll Call’s online article added these four words: “Cantor Upset Changes Everything.” Of course, nothing changes everything, but the resounding and unprecedented defeat in a Republican primary of the soon-to-be former House majority leader will send ripples radiating through the House and into the Republicans’ 2016 presidential nomination contest.

Consider how the unhorsing of Cantor may strike some other Republicans.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who embraces a more welcoming immigration policy than does much of the Republican nominating electorate, may construe Cantor’s defeat as a discouraging augury. Cantor was damaged by the accusation that he favors “amnesty” for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants. Actually, he may have done more damage to himself by seeming to take multiple and contradictory positions on immigration.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan may be weighing a probable ascent in the House leadership against the uncertainties of seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The removal of Cantor, a formidable rival for the office of speaker, may give Ryan reason to remain in Congress. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who hardly has an insufficiency of audacity, will be further emboldened in his presidential ambitions because tea-party support helped to propel David Brat, a 49-year-old college professor, to victory over Cantor. Never mind that Brat, who speaks equably about making Washington work, seems to eschew Cruz’s confrontational style.

Although the “amnesty” accusation hurt Cantor, so did his membership in Congress’ leadership, and the perception that he had neglected his district. Also, he foolishly used his campaign millions on absurd ads implying that because Brat is a professor, he must be a liberal.

Campaign reformers who believe money is sovereign in elections should consider the contrary evidence of Brat’s $231,000 war chest. Big ideas can have bigger consequences than cash, and Brat resonated with tea-party types primarily because his vocabulary was that of constitutionally limited government — 10th Amendment conservatism.

Goodlatte, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, which processes immigration legislation, may have set a 2014 record for understatement when he said Cantor’s defeat will not improve the chances of immigration reform this year. But the chances were, he says, slim anyway.

Goodlatte believes that piecemeal reforms — addressing border security, high-qualification immigrants and other matters separately — would be possible if many people, including President Barack Obama, were not holding all progress hostage to the chimera of “comprehensive” reform. Immigration cases were about half Goodlatte’s practice as a lawyer before he came to Congress in 1993, and he strongly sympathizes with his former clients — persons who conscientiously tried to become legal immigrants.

He does not think “anybody” among House Republicans believes we are going to deport 11 million people. And he thinks a large majority of illegal immigrants would be largely satisfied with a pathway to a legal status short of citizenship. If, however, Cantor’s defeat reinforces the perception that Republicans are simply hostile regarding immigrants, ripples from it might swamp attempts to align Republican policy with the 51 percent of Republicans nationwide, who like 62 percent of Americans, favor a pathway to citizenship.

To reach George Will, send email to georgewill@washpost.com.

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