The unexpected defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary highlights a dilemma that increasingly confronts congressional leaders of both parties. There are demanding leadership responsibilities associated with managing Congress as a co-equal branch of government, made all the more challenging by the tight margins that foster daily strategic and parliamentary combat, and the changing rules on campaign finance. Those who rise to the highest levels of national leadership in an ideologically polarized House, where the battle for control is a constant strategic concern, often must perform in ways that do not measure up to the expectations of their core partisans back in the district who send them to Washington.
Cantor, it has been noted, is the first Majority Leader ever defeated in a primary. (Speaker Tom Foley lost his seat in the 1994 Republican landslide that cost Democrats control of the House.) His loss is closely linked to his increasingly prominent role in the House and party leadership where his duties led him to act in ways that left him vulnerable to critics in the hard core base that often decides primary elections. In Cantor’s case, his complicity as Majority Leader in maneuvering the surprise voice vote passage of the Medicare “doc fix,” (which infuriated the Tea Party faction) or hinting that he might be open to a negotiated compromise on immigration, did not square well with the hard Right base he helped create and which puts little value on conciliatory behavior.
There are important historical observations to be drawn from the Cantor collapse. Over the past 40 years since Watergate and Vietnam, Congress has steadily reasserted itself as a co-equal branch of government, rejecting the deference to the the imperial presidency that often treated the First Branch as an afterthought. Members of the House and Senate have not only challenged presidents of opposing parties during frequent periods of divided government, but often have confronted executives of their own party who took Congress for granted. Republicans voiced concerns with conservative icon Ronald Reagan over such basic issues as raising taxes, and Democrats were unsparing in their anger at Bill Clinton for his triangulating compromises with Speaker Newt Gingrich on welfare reform and other issues. Many Democrats share congressional Republicans’ irritation at a perceived coolness towards Congress by President Obama, and privately express concerns about his use of signing statements, pioneered by George W. Bush, to qualify the scope of measures he signs into law.
To emphasize Congress’ equal status with the Executive Branch, leaders have increasingly promoted their own legislative agenda rather than defer to the Administration, as was often the case historically. More than any other modern Speaker to that point, Jim Wright in the late 1980s issued a legislative program distinct from the Reagan White House, whose Teflon clout had been diminished by the Iran-Contra scandal. Gingrich went several steps further with the development of the “Contract With America,” which he used to castigate long-term Democratic hegemony over Congress during the 1994 election which resulted in a Republican majority in the House. Gingrich explicitly articulated his desire to re-establish the Congress as a co-equal branch of government, asserting, “The Congress in the long run can change the country more dramatically than the President. I think that’s healthy. One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” A dozen years later, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi promoted a legislative package – “Six for ‘06” – that she pledged a Democratic House, under her speakership, would enact in its first 100 hours and that President George W. Bush would sign. She was right on both accounts.
As the Congress’ profile has risen under both parties, the demands on, and expectations of, party leaders have changed. Since 1994, there has often been a biennial contest for control of the Congress and the narrow margins between the parties make the outcome a genuine question throughout an entire Congress. Those tight margins and battles for control necessitate constant expansive fundraising, a burden that often falls to the high-profile leaders, those who can fire up the base where most of the contributions and reliable votes are found. Electorally-driven behaviors like these that play to the fervent base of voters and contributors contribute invariably to the rise in partisanship that has characterized congressional politics for a generation or more.
Leaders like Cantor, Pelosi and Speaker Boehner always need to keep a close eye on constituents who may not understand or agree with their impure actions as leaders. On the one hand, they promote party loyalty by highlighting issues of concern to their respective bases, without whose money and turnout they cannot hope to gain or maintain control. But they also face the inescapable duty to address national concerns, though only minimally under the current Republican majority. As a result, leaders spent vast amounts of time traveling away from their districts – identifying and promoting candidates, raising money, speaking to constituency organizations, and feeding the local press. They have no choice; in an era where personality often matters more than policy, there is no substitute for a highly familiar face appearing in person at far-flung fundraisers, conventions and county fairs.
But time on the road means less attention to the home district, and when grassroots constituent groups question a Member’s primary loyalty to the district, that can spell trouble, even for a prominent national politician who can be accused of falling in love with his title, his obsequious staff, or his hyper-inflated entertainment budget.
Leaders have to govern, especially if they assert the equality of Congress in the policy-setting process. But the compromises required of effective governing rarely involve serving up the red meat that satisfies the revved-up base. Pelosi faced criticism from leftist groups because several liberal touchstones — tough restrictions on corporate pay in the TARP legislation in 2008, the Single Payer option in the Affordable Care Act in 2010 – lacked the votes to be included in the final version of urgent legislation. As a result, throughout her speakership, the hard-line Code Pink maintained a nearly constant presence outside her San Francisco home, excoriating her for passing appropriations bills that funded the troops during the Iraq War which neither they nor she supported, but which she dutifully brought to the floor to allow the House to work its will.
Boehner apparently will not give the House the same option on issues that would secure a large majority vote, like immigration; instead he allows the minority of his own Conference to stymie the House from acting on a bipartisan basis that would surely light up the Tea Party base. Boehner has come under relentless criticism for cutting deals with President Obama and House Democrats throughout his term, especially on must-pass bills like Continuing Resolutions, the raising of the debt ceiling, and the expiration of the upper income Bush tax cut in 2013. Without Democratic votes, none of these measures would have passed because of widespread Tea Party defections within the GOP conference. Yet Boehner had little choice but to reach the best agreements he could with Obama and Pelosi; when he allowed negotiations to collapse and the government shut down last year, as the hard-liners had demanded, the result was a political and public relations disaster for Boehner and Republicans from which they were rescued only by the botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.
Throughout most of those battles, Cantor was a constant thorn in Boehner’s side, walking away from deficit reduction negotiations to which the Speaker had (perhaps cynically) appointed him, and undermining the Speaker’s standing with Members and the press. Ironically, Cantor’s downfall is being attributed to his own flirtation with conciliation on immigration and specifically on the question of a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally. True, Cantor may have been motivated by a recognition that absent a policy overture to the growing Latino population, Republicans face a grim electoral future. But party zealots rarely think long term, focusing instead on electing ideological loyalists, and the more hard-line, the better.
Cantor’s rejection by the constituents he long served illustrates how the practical demands of leadership can draw a leader away from the very base he creates to build political victories. Electorally, leaders play to the base while institutionally, in a Congress that seeks legitimacy as a co-equal branch of government, leaders must make the system work, if only marginally. An extreme base, inclined to become inflamed at anyone who even hints at compromise, need not be respectful or tolerant of those leadership obligations or to the responsibility of governing.