Still Even Worse Than It Looks

There’s one influential political observer who is absolutely sure how to read the implications of Eric Cantor’s loss on Tuesday, and who–like me–considers it the continuation of a trend rather than any sudden (and thus perhaps momentary) turn in the road. It’s AEI’s Norm Ornstein, the man who once pretty much defined the CW:

American political parties always face a tension between their establishment and ideological wings. On the Republican side, going back more than a hundred years to the Teddy Roosevelt era, that was a struggle between moderate progressives and conservatives.

Now it is different. There are no moderates or progressives in today’s GOP; the fight is between hard-line conservatives who believe in smaller government and radical nihilists who want to blow up the whole thing, who have as much disdain for Republican traditional conservatives as they do for liberals.

In our 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Tom Mann and I described the Republican Party as an “insurgent outlier.” That is even more true today. The energy and driving force in the party, in its House membership, media dominance, caucus and primary electorates and financial backers, is not its conservative wing but its radical side.

They may not prevail over the long run. But they are celebrating today. The implications of Cantor’s defeat will not be lost on establishment conservatives — including those contemplating a presidential run.

As Ornstein suggests and some of us have long argued, the radicalization of the conservative movement just as it’s achieved complete power over the Republican Party is the most important political development of our era–the “fever,” as the president memorably put it, that has made bipartisanship impossible and kept the GOP in a constant, almost-Jacobin state of internal turmoil with constant loyalty tests and purges.

The “reform conservative” movement for whom Cantor served as principal patron was one of the few significant signs of that “fever” breaking somewhere down the road. We don’t know yet whether his defeat will put that project back by years, or if it will find new sponsors who are at least marginally relevant to practical politics. But “shocking” as Cantor’s defeat seemed, it really just represented an extreme example of what we’ve been seeing regularly in the GOP since about 2006 if not earlier.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.