We saw that dynamic play out this week in the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary in Virginia, the first time in U.S. history that had occurred. Cantor is conservative by any reasonable definition; he had helped to lead the conservative assault on Obamacare; he had masterminded the GOP’s effort to use the debt ceiling and budget to force concessions from President Obama. He had also backed the Tea Party movement from its earliest days.
But when forced to choose between prolonging the government shutdown and the debt crisis at immense risk to the country and the Republican Party, Cantor backed away from the brink. When confronted in 2008 with the choice of passing the TARP bailout or allowing the international banking system to collapse, he again took the course that I would describe as responsible and his conservative critics would condemn as weak.
Immigration also played a major role. Cantor is by no means an advocate of amnesty for illegal immigrants, but he does recognize that a GOP insistence on self-deportation as the only solution was suicidal. His perceived willingness to at least consider other options became a major count in the conservative indictment against him.
“What the Republican establishment and the Chamber of Commerce don’t understand is that there’s a large element of America that wants a fight,” Newt Gingrich told the New York Times. “If you’re a conservative, you think Barack Obama is literally destroying the country you love. And you watch your leadership and they seem unwilling to take him head on, and also unable to outmaneuver him.”
As a primary architect of the modern GOP, Newt ought to know.