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Topic: Dave Brat

Cantor Checks Out Early; Will It Matter?

When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election earlier this year in a major upset, it seemed clear right away that he could not keep his leadership position until the end of his term. Because he was on his way out, he would lose too much of his effectiveness at a crucial time for the GOP, which only held the House. Furthermore, Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans and wanton destruction of Senate traditions and practices has made the GOP virtually invisible in the Senate. With a White House that doesn’t appear to recognize any limits on its power, the right would need their House leadership in midseason form. Having Cantor remain leader would have been a strategic limitation.

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When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election earlier this year in a major upset, it seemed clear right away that he could not keep his leadership position until the end of his term. Because he was on his way out, he would lose too much of his effectiveness at a crucial time for the GOP, which only held the House. Furthermore, Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans and wanton destruction of Senate traditions and practices has made the GOP virtually invisible in the Senate. With a White House that doesn’t appear to recognize any limits on its power, the right would need their House leadership in midseason form. Having Cantor remain leader would have been a strategic limitation.

It was a major coup for Cantor’s relatively unknown GOP challenger, Dave Brat. He had been abandoned even by Tea Party groups, outspent by a wide margin, and didn’t have much name recognition. So he seemed content to wait for the general election, in which he was favored, and to take his spot in the House and begin to work his way up the ladder. But today, plans were changed. Cantor announced that, whereas right after the election pains were taken to stress that the outgoing leader was leaving his leadership post but not his seat, he is now apparently doing the latter as well. As the New York Times reports:

Representative Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican whose last day as House majority leader was Thursday, said on Friday that he would resign his seat effective Aug. 18 in hopes that his successor will be able to participate in the lame-duck session after the November elections.
Mr. Cantor, 51, made the announcement in an op-ed article published on The Richmond Times-Dispatch website. …

Mr. Cantor, who has served in Congress for 14 years, said that he would ask Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, to call a special election for his seat on Nov. 4 — the same day as the general election — a move that would allow the winner to take Mr. Cantor’s seat immediately rather than wait for the next Congress to be seated in January. The winner would also enjoy seniority over the other Representatives first elected that day.
Mr. McAuliffe told the newspaper that he was “heartsick” about Mr. Cantor’s loss because the state was losing a senior voice in Congress, but there was no indication whether he would honor the request for a special election.
Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District is conservative, which would favor Mr. Brat’s chances in November, when he will face the Democratic nominee, Jack Trammell, and James Carr, a Libertarian. Both Mr. Brat and Mr. Trammell are professors at Randolph-Macon College.

The advantages are clear but limited. The Times originally wrote that the winner of the election, if held in this manner, would gain Cantor’s seniority. That’s not the case, and the article has since been corrected. If he wins, Brat would have seniority over the others elected that day, as he would take office before them. Had he been able to take over Cantor’s seniority, Cantor’s exit strategy would be clear. As it stands now, the benefits are a bit hazy, other than giving his Virginia district a slight advantage over other seats won by new members that day.

Larry Sabato says it’s self-interest and generosity, for Dave Brat will reap the benefits. Robert Tracinski says it’s self-interest (a head start on his post-congressional career) with a touch of boredom (he’s given up on the lame-duck session producing anything worth staying in the House over). I imagine we’ll find out more after he actually steps down later this month.

Conservatives, in this case, might as well pay more attention to the effect and less to the intentions at play. The lame-duck session may very well turn out to be more important than it might seem at the moment, depending on the results on Election Day. If the midterm elections produce a GOP wave, it’s possible the Senate will change hands, or else come very close. If Republicans make significant gains, the lame-duck session will be the Reid-led Democrats’ last chance during the Obama administration to make good use of their Senate majority.

Of course, their initiatives would not get very far in the House, so there are even limits here. But Reid’s actions in the Senate are not meant to enact legislation and fix problems as much as they are to manipulate a gullible media into portraying Republicans in the most negative light possible. As such, the Democratic Senate’s actions mostly consist of publicity stunts. The exception is for judicial and other nominees, which Reid can get confirmed by using the nuclear option, which he cannot do if he’s in the minority. If the midterms go well for the GOP, expect Reid to go on a two-month binge, in which case yes, the lame-duck session will matter some.

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McCarthy Learning from Cantor’s Mistakes?

After Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss to Dave Brat, it appeared as though we wouldn’t really understand what happened for some time. But it turned out that one of the earliest pieces on the upset was so on-target as to eventually become the conventional wisdom. Robert Tracinski’s reaction piece at the Federalist had an advantage over many others seeking to weigh in: Tracinski lives in Cantor’s district, and so had a front-row seat.

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After Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss to Dave Brat, it appeared as though we wouldn’t really understand what happened for some time. But it turned out that one of the earliest pieces on the upset was so on-target as to eventually become the conventional wisdom. Robert Tracinski’s reaction piece at the Federalist had an advantage over many others seeking to weigh in: Tracinski lives in Cantor’s district, and so had a front-row seat.

As Tracinski explained at the time:

For almost as long as I’ve lived here, which is coming up on 20 years now, the purpose of the seventh district has been to re-elect Eric Cantor every two years. It’s a strongly Republican district that spans across a very conservative stretch of rural Central Virginia, from the Richmond suburbs to Culpeper. So what were we going to do, vote for a Democrat? No, we were going to vote for Cantor.

And Cantor knew it. Because he didn’t have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.

The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home.

Cantor was replaced in that leadership slot by California Republican Kevin McCarthy, who seemed to follow the old adage about learning from the mistakes of others–though he doesn’t need much of a reminder. The Wall Street Journal reports that McCarthy is intent on staying close to his constituents. A congressman should represent his district in Washington, not represent Washington to his district. If that’s one lesson to come out of the grassroots’ insurgent campaigns against establishment candidates, the Tea Party and other conservative groups will have brought back a measure of accountability sorely needed in the nation’s capital.

Yet to be fair to McCarthy, he was aware of this before Cantor’s defeat. As the Journal notes, McCarthy was instrumental in helping the GOP gain its House majority by strategically targeting Democrats he considered vulnerable–not because they were poor candidates or beset by scandals, but because they had been in office long enough to drift from their home district:

Anyone in search of Mr. McCarthy on weekends needs to look no further than Luigi’s, one of this city’s oldest family-run businesses. As the man who orchestrated a 2010 Republican takeover of Congress by targeting Democrats who, in his estimation, were out of touch with their districts, Mr. McCarthy is keenly aware that forsaking home for power in Washington can spell defeat.

“In your fifth term, I felt you were most vulnerable,” Mr. McCarthy said, after ordering a round of Butterfinger pies for the table. “So I would target those to go after.”

McCarthy’s district is, however, in many ways a cross-section of the competing interest groups that follow the congressman to Washington and back. The Journal explains that McCarthy is under pressure from the United Farm Workers, which is based in his district, over immigration.

McCarthy also hears from the Bakersfield Tea Party, which aims to push McCarthy to the right by showing him “some tough love,” in the words of one of its leaders. And he must add “oil and agricultural industries” to the mix as well. But even if McCarthy has been no stranger around his district, he still seems to be consciously employing the lessons of Cantor’s defeat:

Mr. McCarthy is doing what he can to ensure he doesn’t suffer the fate of the man he replaces as majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, whose Virginia primary loss last month came at the hands of a virtually unknown tea-party candidate who successfully attacked Mr. Cantor as having become too much part of the Washington establishment.

Despite facing only a write-in opponent this fall, Mr. McCarthy already has aired a campaign commercial here. “Being elected majority leader was an honor,” Mr. McCarthy said in the spot. “But the highest honor is serving our community and you.”

During a recent visit home, Mr. McCarthy served his constituents—literally.

Donning a Sequoia Sandwich Company T-shirt, Mr. McCarthy hustled through lunchtime crowds, sweating and bellowing out order numbers. The sandwich shop marked the day by offering “The McCarthy” special: cracked-pepper turkey on a ciabatta roll with cream cheese.

Some of this is cosmetic, and some of it is nearly universal to members of the House who must run for reelection every two years and, even in a safe district, at least make a show of it. But that show is reassuring: as American politics has become increasingly nationalized, the public stands to lose a great deal at the steady erosion of local governance. The Tea Party often talks about getting back to first principles, and this is a good way to do so.

The Tea Party has put up some poor candidates, but on balance it has been a net positive for the conservative movement. Cantor’s loss may have been surprising, and it also may not really change anything. But if it serves to remind members of Congress who their constituents are, it’ll have another, even if modest, benefit.

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Reid Sets a Trap for GOP on Earmarks

Harry Reid is making trouble again. With Republicans still squabbling over the establishment-Tea Party rift, the Senate’s top Democrat sat down with reporters from the Huffington Post to offer some comments perfectly designed to make Republicans even angrier at each other.

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Harry Reid is making trouble again. With Republicans still squabbling over the establishment-Tea Party rift, the Senate’s top Democrat sat down with reporters from the Huffington Post to offer some comments perfectly designed to make Republicans even angrier at each other.

According to HuffPo:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects congressional earmarks will be revived and insisted senior Republican Party members support the return of congressionally directed spending.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Reid argued that the prohibition on earmarks was a mistake that tipped the balance of power away from the legislative branch and toward the president. He said he wants the ability to approve specific spending projects to be put back under control of Congress.

Reid said top House Republicans have told him they support earmarks and would like to see the practice return. He said those he’s spoken to include “a very senior member of the House Republican caucus.” Reid wouldn’t name names, but said that the lawmaker is “still there” — meaning it’s likely not Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Reid’s timing is almost certainly no coincidence. As political targets go, earmarks are the broad side of a barn. Because they explicitly direct taxpayer cash, it’s easy to find ridiculous pork-barrel projects and obvious wastes of money. During the Bush presidency, Majority Leader Tom DeLay used earmarks as a disciplinary tool. The more transparency that developed–that is, the more easily specific earmarks could be traced not only to their destination but back to their congressional source–the more easily they could be used much as campaign-finance regulation is used: as incumbent-protection plans.

Hence they came to be hated by conservatives even before the rise of the Tea Party. When Republicans gained and then lost control of Congress, much of it was blamed by the grassroots on GOPers falling prey to the lure of power and appropriations and forgetting its limited-government roots. Conservatives said Republicans deserved to lose because they began spending money just like Democrats.

The Tea Party’s arrival on the scene was part of this trend, and it’s easy to see why earmarks are a stand-in for precisely what drives budget hawks crazy about Washington. But they also posed a specific threat to the Tea Party: as districts became less competitive, the primary contests were where the real action was. And, in the House at least, winning a primary got you most of the way to punching your ticket to Congress. (The Senate has been a tougher party to crash.)

So Reid’s timing for dropping this hint about the return of earmarks was perfect, at least from his standpoint. Just a few years ago, an incumbent running against a self-described Tea Partier was an underdog. But this year, incumbents and establishment candidates have been able to push back. In part this has been because the Tea Party’s early victories have enabled it to shape the party’s congressional agenda, so primaries these days are often conservatives running against conservatives–Dave Brat against Eric Cantor is a much different matchup than Pat Toomey against Arlen Specter.

But the recent runoff victory by incumbent Thad Cochran over Chris McDaniel is highly relevant to the debate over earmarks. Cochran was expected to lose the runoff. Primary turnout is already lower than general-election turnout, and a runoff lower still. Usually.

Cochran turned the tables by crossing the aisle and making a successful pitch to Mississippi’s black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democratic. He did so by reminding black voters that he brings home the bacon for them, despite the fact that they don’t vote for him in general elections. Pro-Cochran groups hired black leaders to make the same plea. It worked, and Cochran won.

The lesson here is that Cochran’s record was not enough to placate the grassroots, but that he could win by emphasizing his spending on federal programs that help his state. If Republican leaders pine for the days of earmarks, it’s easy to see why. Not only could they help defeat conservative insurgents, but the House caucus has become far more difficult for the leadership to control–witness House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to Brat, who had been abandoned even by Tea Party groups.

Reid is also handing his Republican counterparts a live grenade in offering a plausible-sounding justification for earmarks: they could help devolve spending power back to the Congress from the White House. It is, of course, a trap. Earmarks may not have been the budget poison they were sometimes made out to be, and they certainly weren’t all bridges to nowhere. But they will not stop this president from taking executive action, and they will not bring Democrats on board for the House GOP’s reform agenda.

Reid is trying to sucker the GOP leadership into a prolonged fight with its base that the establishment will eventually lose. At times earmarks got more attention than they warranted. But the GOP leadership doesn’t stand to gain from being their champion.

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Answering the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, whose work I generally like, has written a column in which she attacks a publication to which I contributed, Room to Grow. Most of her focus is on tax policy. She is a fierce critic of child tax credits, which Rob Stein, who authored the chapter on taxes, endorses.

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a response which is largely devoted to the matter of tax policy and child credits, and I commend it to you.

I thought it might be useful is to analyze two claims made by Strassel, one of which is that “The authors are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.”

Really, now? Ms. Strassel need only have read the opening paragraph of the introductory essay (written by me) to refute this assertion. Here’s what it says (the italics are mine):

Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

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Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, whose work I generally like, has written a column in which she attacks a publication to which I contributed, Room to Grow. Most of her focus is on tax policy. She is a fierce critic of child tax credits, which Rob Stein, who authored the chapter on taxes, endorses.

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a response which is largely devoted to the matter of tax policy and child credits, and I commend it to you.

I thought it might be useful is to analyze two claims made by Strassel, one of which is that “The authors are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.”

Really, now? Ms. Strassel need only have read the opening paragraph of the introductory essay (written by me) to refute this assertion. Here’s what it says (the italics are mine):

Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

If she had read only a bit further into the chapter, she would have stumbled across this:

conservatives in American politics need to understand constituents’ concerns, speak to those aspirations and worries, and help people see how applying conservative principles and deploying conservative policies could help make their lives better.

And this:

Conservatives today need to show Americans how the principles that led to successful solutions when applied to the problems of that era [the 1980s] can do the same when applied to the rather different problems of this one. The same principles applied to new problems will yield new solutions.

The point of Room to Grow–which is explicitly stated in the book–is to (a) elucidate how a conservative vision of government could speak to today’s public concerns; (b) suggest how such a vision would translate into concrete policy reforms; and (c) explain how that vision and those reforms embody the spirit of our constitutional system. That hardly amounts to arguing that principles need not drive conservative policy. In fact, it amounts to the opposite.

We of course take political realities into account, as any sane person, and certainly any true conservative, must; but that is done in order to make it more, not less, likely that a conservative governing agenda actually be translated into law.

Now let me turn to Strassel’s claim that Room to Grow’s central premise is “That conservatives need to embrace government to better endear themselves to the ‘middle class.'”

This charge, like the first one, is wildly wrong. In the book’s second chapter, by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, he explains with some care why the proposals in the book would result in a government that “would no doubt be much smaller, more restrained, and less expensive than the one we have today.”

Yet Levin goes further than that. He also argues that conservatives should not be satisfied with accepting less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. A bolder and more far-reaching goal is to change the underlying structure, the basic architecture, of much of the liberal welfare state, in order to advance the conservative vision of society.

The argument over which approach to tax cuts conservatives should take–tax credits for families v. cutting taxes on capital, and which are most appropriate at any given moment–is a serious and long-standing one. Ms. Strassel, an intelligent writer, is certainly able to present her substantive case. What is somewhat surprising is that her column so clearly misrepresents the book and the views of the various authors, to ascribe to them views and motivations that are quite obviously false.

She can do better than this, and usually she does.

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