WASHINGTON -- 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.
It is often folly to try to tickle national portents from local events. But there are fewer purely local political events now that elections have become increasingly nationalized in this era of inter-party and intra-party ideological combat. So, 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 concerning any presidential aspirations Bush might have. 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 once John Boehner relinquishes it, 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 to barrage Brat with absurd ads implying that because Brat is a professor, he must be a liberal.
Campaign reformers who believe money is the sovereign determinative in elections should consider the contrary evidence of Brat’s $231,000 war chest. Big ideas can have bigger consequences than cash does, and Brat resonated with tea-party types primarily because his campaign 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.
Congress will be away most of August and expects to adjourn for campaigning in early October, at the latest. Barack Obama, Goodlatte says, continues to poison the well by threatening to use his “pen and phone” -- unilateral actions -- to alter immigration policy without involving Congress.
Goodlatte believes that piecemeal reforms -- addressing border security, high-qualification immigrants and other matters separately -- would be possible if many people, including Obama, were not holding all progress hostage to the chimera of “comprehensive” reform. Goodlatte has come to the conclusion that many people, including Obama, do not want reform but “only want the issue” of immigration for its political advantages. Goodlatte, however, will continue the Sisyphean task of pushing the immigration boulder up Capitol Hill. The subject is, for him, personal. Immigration cases were about half his 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 while others, ignoring legality, “would go right around them.”
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 legislation providing a pathway to a legal status short of citizenship. If, however, Cantor’s defeat reinforces the perception that Republicans are simply hostile regarding immigration and 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 for the 11 million a pathway to citizenship.
George Will is a colunist for The Washington Post Writers Group.