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The Victory Behind Cantor’s Defeat



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It’s amusing to watch the strange new respect Democrats are mustering for Eric Cantor. Xavier Becerra was on Morning Joe lamenting how Eric was just the sort of responsible Republican who wanted to get things done. I think Hugh Hewitt is right that Dems like Becerra don’t want to fix immigration so much as have the issue. But I do think the White House really does want a big immigration bill as part of their effort to pad his legacy. That’s why they are in overdrive to claim that, in Dan Pfeiffer’s words, “Cantor’s problem wasn’t his position on immigration reform, it was his lack of a position.” A White House aide notes that Lindsey Graham won his race running away and he’s far more associated with immigration reform than Cantor was. This of course leaves out the fact that Graham is a much better retail politician than Cantor. It leaves out that Graham saw the threat coming years ago​ and wisely panicked early about a tea-party challenge. And it leaves out that Graham was in a seven-way race. If he’d had a single opponent, like Cantor (or Cochran), who knows how differently things would have played out.

Now, I actually think there’s a grain of truth to Pfeiffer’s point. As John Fund notes below, Cantor’s biggest problem was that he seemed insincere, elitist, aloof, and concerned about agendas not connected to his district or his base. He held a fundraising meeting at D.C. Starbucks on primary day. Some of this was driven by his personality. The guy, even off the record, always seemed to be on message (though I should say I always found him to be personally gracious and decent). But the notion that immigration wasn’t the symbolic heart of Cantor’s problem strikes me as nothing less than ridiculous. And the idea that GOP congressmen are going to put much stock in the White House’s spin is flat-out unhinged.

And that is surely good news. I actually want Congress to do some things on immigration, but I’m against comprehensive immigration reform for the simple reason that I don’t trust huge sweeping legislation. I prefer doing things in digestible, piecemeal, bits. In the case of immigration, border security seems like a good place to start. The Democrats hate that idea for lots of reasons, but chief among them is they like winning unpopular stuff by attaching it to popular stuff. That’s one reason the Democrats have been so slow to consider mental health as a stand-alone issue in the context of mass shootings. They understood that even the NRA and the GOP base believe we should do more to keep certifiably crazy people from getting guns. And that’s why they pushed for sweeping gun-control measures while arguing anyone who disagreed wanted more madmen with guns. Republicans held firm in their opposition to sweeping gun-control laws and now, after even more shootings by crazy people, at least some Democrats are willing to do the right thing and deal with this issue independent from their larger gun control agenda.

Last night amidst the blizzard of chatter about Eric Cantor’s defeat, I tweeted, “Just for the record, a vote for Eric Cantor really wasn’t a ‘vote for open borders.’” This elicited a lot of dyspepsia in some folks. But it’s true. Cantor may have been wrong — or simply untrustworthy — on immigration, but his position was never to “open the borders.” Michael Brendan Dougherty, however, had a good response: “But a vote for Brat was definitely a vote against them.”

And that is certainly true also.

If there’s one takeaway on the immigration issue from Cantor’s defeat it’s that sweeping comprehensive legislation is not going to happen any time soon. I would say 2017 is the earliest it would be considered. That’s good news. Democrats had reason — good reason — to doubt Republican conviction on this point. They looked at the Chamber of Commerce, the beltway establishment, and leaders like Cantor and figured a grand bargain could be made. Well, now all doubt should be dispelled. Even pro comprehensive reform Republicans can — and will — plausibly tell Democrats, “Look, it’s simply out of my hands.” No grand bargain is coming down the pike for the foreseeable future. The only immigration reforms that can pass now would have to be targeted, narrow, and broadly popular (which means they would have to address conservative concerns). That’s not bad news for immigration reform, it’s bad news for Democratic immigration strategy.


Tags: Eric Cantor


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