Snap Judgments

Snap judgments are usually wrong, which is why, when some big event happens, or anything unusual happens, politicians should hide. Some reporter is going to stick a camera in his or her face and ask him or her whether Cliven Bundy is a true patriot, or an old crank and a deadbeat who refused to pay twenty years of grazing fees for all his cattle munching away on federal land, cheating the rest of us and hiding behind that “Don’t Tread on Me” Tea Party flag. How do you answer that? There were those who were saying that Cliven Bundy and his armed supporters were sort of the second coming of the American Revolution, rising against the “tyrant” in the White House. One of Nevada’s senators, Dean Heller, called the Bundy Ranch defenders “patriots,” and Rand Paul and Rick Perry also jumped on that bandwagon – they had the 2016 Republican primaries in mind, followed by the presidency. Oops. Bundy made those predictably racist statements about “the Negro” and they shut up real fast. They should have seen that coming – there’s a sort of benevolent plantation racism that comes with Tea Party thinking, as an inevitable secondary subset – and their snap judgment, a political calculation, turned out to be an embarrassment. That’s why it’s best to hide. Wait. Things might not be what they seem.

Things are seldom what they seem, at first. In the 2006 midterms, Karl Rove was asked if he was worried that the Democrats might retake control of both the House and Senate. He said no – pollsters had their math, but he had THE math. He didn’t. That was a snap judgment, based on sketchy information, not on long and careful consideration, and the Democrats did take back both the House and Senate that year, even if it took many months to confirm Al Franken had actually won his senate seat and settle the matter. Two years later a lot of politicians and pundits made a snap judgment – Hillary Clinton was inevitable. She and her husband simply were the Democratic Party. It was all over before it started. She would be the party’s nominee, and then Barack Obama cleaned her clock. He slowly and steadily, and in the background, out-organized her at the precinct level in every county in every state – the sort of thing that those who make snap judgments would never notice. Four years later, everyone from Dick Morris on Fox News to pretty Peggy Noonan from her perch on the Upper East Side, was predicting a Romney landslide of epic proportions. That was a snap judgment too – things just felt that way. The statistician Nate Silver, whose tediously detailed blog was hosted by the New York Times at the time, didn’t make snap judgments. He ran the numbers, collating and consolidating all the daily and weekly polling he could find. The odds of Romney winning were small, and got smaller and smaller each day – and of course Romney lost. Romney hadn’t even prepared the requisite concession speech. Dick Morris disappeared from Fox News. Peggy Noonan sipped tea and went back to lunch with the ladies, a Manhattan thing. Karl Rove spent months explaining to donors what he had done with the tens of millions they had chipped into his Crossroads SuperPAC, to assure Romney would win and do the things they expected of him. All sorts of folks had to explain that they those snap judgments had been nonsense.

That’s why it’s best to hide. Wait. Things can turn on a dime, and as Chris Moody reports, they just did:

Everyone – the pundits, the pollsters, the pols, the hacks, the flacks, the friends, the supporters, the opponents, the winner, the loser - was shocked by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s crushing primary defeat by a man named David Brat, a little-known economics professor who will likely be the next congressman from Virginia’s District Seven.

In a wholly unexpected upset, Brat took down the second most powerful Republican in the House, a lawmaker with 13 years of hard-earned Beltway clout who was within arms’ reach of becoming the next Speaker of the House. Brat’s victory represents the greatest coup yet for voters and candidates closely aligned with the insurgent tea party faction of the Republican Party and who see today’s GOP leaders as insufficiently willing to hold the line on conservative issues.

For a sense of just how unexpected Cantor’s loss was, Tuesday’s upset was the first time a sitting House Majority Leader has lost a race since the job was created at the turn of the century – the nineteenth century.

The Tea Party is taking over, or at least taking over the Republican Party, or at least they got their first major scalp, but Moody doesn’t think that’s quite right:

There isn’t a simple answer to explain Cantor’s defeat. The most prominent conservative and tea party groups that have supported insurgent candidates around the country didn’t back Brat financially. In the final weeks of the campaign, however, conservative pundits with wide following on the right – such as author Ann Coulter and radio hosts Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham – began a vocal campaign to pound Cantor over the issue of immigration, suggesting that he supported “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Ingraham even traveled to Richmond to campaign for Brat.

While Cantor was a supporter of a program that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to earn a path to legality, he never voiced support for the comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform plan the Senate passed last year. Those who say Cantor’s election was all about immigration will want to look south to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s primary victory on the same night; Graham was a co-sponsor of the Senate bill and easily fended off his own tea party challengers.

Still, Cantor’s defeat will almost surely scare other Republicans out of uttering a word of support for immigration reform in the near future, leading to a long-term delay of action on the issue in Congress.

They won’t utter a word about immigration reform now, or about gun safety, or about passing the usual transportation bill to fix roads and highways, or anything else. It will be all Benghazi and repealing Obamacare now. Brat even hammered Cantor for voting to end the government shutdown last year, but the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak adds a different twist:

The stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor was, by any metaphoric measure, an enormous event: an earthquake, a volcanic explosion, a political tsunami.

But, at bottom, it also underscored some of the essential truths of politics, none more so than that old chestnut – oft-quoted and ascribed to the late ex-House Speaker Tip O’Neill – that all politics is local.

And, it might be added as a corollary, woe to the politician – whatever the office or his or her presumed import – who takes reelection, and, by extension, the people he or she represents, for granted.

Cantor got trapped:

Rep. Cantor of Virginia was the No. 2 Republican in the House leadership and, both logically and politically, the heir to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. There was even talk of Cantor someday running for president and, if his dreams were realized, becoming the first Jewish president in U.S. history.

However, that leadership position and Cantor’s unrequited ambition meant a great deal of time and travel away from his district, which left him ripe for attack by his underfunded, little-regarded challenger, college professor Dave Brat. …

Cantor had the burden, as do all congressional leaders, of serving dual masters, his constituents and the national needs of his party. Those are increasingly diverging in a GOP split between what might be called, for simplicity’s sake, the pragmatists and the purists.

The pragmatists believe that compromise is a necessary part of the political process. The purists, the animating force of the tea party movement, would rather lose elections than surrender what they believe to be fundamental conservative principles.

That’s the issue here:

Perhaps the most important flashpoint has been over the issue of immigration. Many Republicans believe the party must join Democrats, for survival’s sake, to pass some form of legalization for the millions in the country without legal documentation. Others call that amnesty, the battle cry that Brat used in the race against Cantor, who supported some easing of immigration law.

Too late did Cantor realize the strength of Brat and, more broadly, voters’ disdain for the type of give-and-take required of someone in Cantor’s position. A last-minute blast of ads that underscored his concern went nowhere.

“This is the grass roots flexing its muscle and reminding members of the Republican leadership – and reminding all Republicans – that this is a very conservative party at the grass roots and they’re angry,” said Stuart Rothenberg, who analyzes campaigns nationwide for his nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

“And they care more about their anger and expressing their anger and electing someone who will express their anger than they care about electing someone who gets the best deal in negotiations with the White House or the Senate.”

They’d rather have a small but pure party no one else votes for, because those “other” people out there are fools or cowards or traitors, and they are not, and they’d rather have a government that doesn’t work rather than get only some of what they want. That’s the future for American politics. They have only one thing to say to any Republican who disagrees. Remember Eric Cantor. The previous vague fears of “establishment” Republicans just became concrete.

Things just changed, and the Atlantic’s Molly Ball sees this:

Cantor’s loss will prompt the reexamination of some other pieces of conventional wisdom: One, that the Tea Party is dead – clearly, at least in one restive precinct, anti-Washington anger is alive and well. And two, that supporting immigration reform doesn’t necessarily hurt Republicans in primaries – Cantor’s supposed support for “amnesty” was Brat’s chief line of attack. Supporters of immigration reform now fear that Republican members of Congress, leery of touching the issue before, now will never be persuaded that it is not politically toxic. As one immigration-reform-supporting conservative operative emailed me mournfully – “I can’t vote for Democrats because I am pro-life, but my party seems beyond repair.”

Michael Tomasky is stunned:

Cantor was not an enemy of the Tea Party. He was in fact the Tea Party’s guy in the leadership for much of the Barack Obama era. He carried the tea into the speaker’s office. And still he got creamed. Creamed! Has a party leader ever lost a primary like this? Stop and take this in. Like any political journalist, I’m a little bit of a historian of this sort of thing, although I readily admit my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic. But I sure can’t think of anything. Tom Foley, the Democratic House speaker in the early 1990s, lost reelection while he was speaker, but that was in the general, to a Republican, which is a whole different ballgame. And he was the first sitting speaker to lose an election since – get this – 1862! But a primary? The No. 2 man in the House, losing a primary?

Immigration reform is now as dead as dead can be:

There is no chance the House will touch it. That means it is dead for this Congress, which means that next Congress, the Senate would have to take the lead in passing it again. (The Senate’s passage of the current bill expires when this Congress ends.) And the Senate isn’t going to touch it in the next Congress, even if the Democrats hold on to the majority. That handful of Republicans who backed reform last year will be terrified to do so. And it’s difficult to say when immigration reform might have another shot. Maybe the first two years of President Clinton’s second term – maybe.

Jonathan Chait sees the same thing:

The biggest issue by far was immigration reform. Cantor was no reformer, really. He rejected the bipartisan immigration reform deal that Marco Rubio and other Republicans had negotiated in the Senate. But he did hope to salvage some partial compromise, perhaps allowing some illegal immigrants who had been brought over the border as children, and thus could not be deemed personally guilty, to stay unmolested. Brat rejected even that. Any token of conciliation was too much. He still uses the old lingo, calling undocumented immigrants “illegals.” The immediate, and probably correct, reaction in Washington is that Cantor’s defeat wipes out whatever tiny shred of a hope that remained for immigration reform.

That’s only one issue, and at the Daily Beast, Ben Jacobs and Tim Mak suggest other factors at play here:

One Virginia Republican familiar with the race suggested that Cantor’s loss was due to “a perfect storm” brought about by the fact that Cantor seemed to be schooled in “the George Armstrong Custer School of tactics as opposed to Sung Tzu School.” The Republican suggested that while immigration was a factor, the bigger issues were internal party politics. As opposed to other Virginia Republicans in Congress, Cantor didn’t show the most basic respect to Tea Partiers in his district. It wasn’t about Cantor’s votes but rather that he didn’t even show up to explain himself and get yelled at. If the Majority Leader, who was the only Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill, had paid more attention to the words of Woody Allen, who said “80 percent of life is showing up,” he would be in much better political shape.

The rightest of those on the right, Erik Erickson, says it more simply – “Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman.”

That may be so, but Ezra Klein sees more here:

Of late, there’s been a lot of talk about “reform conservatism,” a gentler, more inclusive, more wonkish brand of conservatism. Cantor, a founding member of the “Young Guns,” was one of reform conservatism’s patron saints. His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor’s district, isn’t in the mood for technocratic solutionism. It’s still angry, and it still believes that any accommodation is too much accommodation.

Ramesh Ponnuru, however, says slow down here:

It is easy enough to attribute his defeat to the sentiment among conservatives that Cantor is not sufficiently hostile to an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and that the Republican establishment is too squishy: too willing to raise the debt ceiling, vote for bank bailouts, and so on.

But then why did Senator Lindsey Graham, who vocally championed the immigration bill while Cantor distanced himself from it, win walking away in conservative South Carolina? Why did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is just as much an establishment figure as Cantor, and more favorable to the immigration bill, thump his primary opponent a few weeks ago?

Okay – let’s wait – but Jonathan Cohn suggests there may be nothing to wait for:

Cantor’s loss sure looks like a reminder that the rift in the Republican Party still exists – and that the GOP establishment may not have the control it seemed to have regained.

There’s a certain poetic irony to Cantor, who exploited Tea Party frustrations in order to undermine Boehner, falling to a Tea Party challenger himself. And as my colleague Danny Vinik points out, this probably isn’t good news for the Republican Party’s political prospects in national elections, given how out of sync the Tea Party is with the rest of the country. But there’s a long way to go before 2016. In the interim, the country needs a government that can actually function – which means it needs an opposition party that can bring itself to compromise, at least once in a while. In the wake of Cantor’s loss, Republicans may be even less enthusiastic about that than they were before.

All the snap judgments, that the Tea Party was fading and the Old Hands in the party would contain them, may have been wrong. The Tea Party just took out one of the big three of the old hands, Cantor and Boehner and Mitch McConnell over in the Senate. What are we facing now? At the New Republic, Brian Beutler may have connected the dots – there’s something about contemporary American conservatism that encourages the kind of right-wing violence America saw in Las Vegas when Jarad and Amanda Miller gunned down two police officers and a civilian in an explicitly political act – there’s no other way to describe it. Beutler notes that almost all the domestic political violence occurring since 9/11 has been from the right, and that may come from a different way of thinking:

The basic story Democrats tell voters about Republicans and their donors is that they’re plutocrats who don’t really care about poor and middle class people, and are deeply beholden to an increasingly aged, increasingly resentful white base.

The GOP’s story about Democrats is a bit more diffuse, but it tends toward invocations of tyranny. They’ll take your (money/guns/freedoms/lives). Pick your poison.

When Democrats tried to pass an extremely modest gun law in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ted Cruz said the real goal was “a federal list of every gun owner in America.” When Democrats more recently proposed a constitutional amendment to effectively reverse the consequences of the Citizens United ruling, he said they were trying to “repeal the First Amendment.”

Paul Waldman cited Senator Ron Johnson, who lamented last year that the survival of the Affordable Care Act had denied the country its “last shred of freedom.” But you could just as easily cite the “death panel” smear from the beginning of Obama’s presidency or the martyrization of Cliven Bundy just a few weeks ago, and a dozen other misbegotten efforts in between. If I bought into all of it, I’d probably take certain paranoid suspicions of the American far right more seriously.

Ed Kilgore carries that further:

Contemporary conservatives – particularly (and ironically) the “constitutional” brand – tend to insist on a right to armed revolution as a remedy of last resort if the normal mechanisms of representative democracy and the courts do not suffice to stop what they regard as “tyranny,” defined, as Beutler notes, rather loosely. Indeed, Second Amendment ultras, a class that now includes probably a majority of Republican pols around the country, frequently argue that virtually unlimited access to weaponry, including military weaponry, is essential to the maintenance of liberty on grounds that patriots might need to emulate the original American Revolutionaries and undertake the armed overthrow of the government.

Given the rather flexible definitions on the Right of the kind of “tyranny” necessary to trigger this right to armed revolution, it’s not surprising that people who may think legalized abortion or Obamacare or “voter fraud” are big steps on the road to serfdom may connect the dots and consider using those stockpiled weapons on enemies or symbols of authority.

Yes, conservatives do need to tone down extremist and dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at liberals of agents of the federal government, as Beutler suggests. But I strongly believe the more immediate demand liberals are justified in making of our conservative friends is a repudiation of the kind of self-defined “right of revolution” that can serve as dynamite in the minds of the self-deluded.

Well, at least they elected David Brat, dumping Eric Cantor, forgoing, for now, emulating the original American Revolutionaries and undertaking the armed overthrow of the government – but the impulse seems to be there, barely hidden. Brat is the new poster boy for ending the tyranny of big government, or government itself, if government means disparate parties working out something that keeps things running reasonably well, even if each side doesn’t get exactly what it wants. But that may be a snap judgment too. This was only one primary election in one congressional district. Maybe it’s best to wait and see what happens next, or, conversely, it’s best to hide.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Snap Judgments

  1. Rick says:

    So is there any chance Cantor could run as a Democrat?

    Not really, since the Democrats already have a candidate: Jack Trammell, who, like Dave Brat, the guy who beat Cantor in the primary yesterday, also teaches at Randolph-Macon, as an associate professor of sociology. Even though he has a slightly better chance against Brat than he would have had against the heavily-financed Cantor, that district is heavily conservative Republican, so he probably has a snowball’s chance in hell.

    But could Cantor run as an independent? According to Molly Ball of the Atlantic, no:

    “According to Virginia’s ‘sore-loser’ law, Cantor can’t run against Brat as an independent in the general election, though he might be allowed to mount a write-in bid.”

    Can you see that happening? Cantor sneaking back into town on a write-in, then launching his bid to be Speaker, and then winning? No, neither can I, but it’s still worth noting that strange things do happen all the time, at least to Republicans.

    But talk about your snap judgements, when I first heard last night that Cantor lost to his Tea Party challenger, my initial reaction was to frown (as if one of our guys, a relatively normal person, lost to some crazy-brained insurgent), but then I immediately smiled (at the always amusing image of the Republican party being in disarray), but finally, I shrugged, since nothing that happens within that party, whether it’s a Tea Party victory or establishment Republican victory, ever seems to bode well for the country.

    Take Immigration, for instance. Despite all the hopeful talk now and then, Immigration Reform is like the concept of perpetual motion; sure, you might think it could actually happen, in theory, but whenever anybody actually sits down and tries it, the whole thing inevitably falls apart.

    If only both major parties in the country could just agree wholeheartedly on a few basic goods — such as the idea that people coming here from elsewhere to work would actually be good, rather than bad, for the country — we might be able to govern ourselves.

    So, no, ultimately, this news is not good, since it tells us that the Wackadoodle Wing of the Republican party is still with us, and as long as there is a large enough minority of voters that believes weird things — like that the more guns everyone has, the safer we all are; and that money is speech, rather than just money; that there’s nothing wrong with torture, as long as it’s our guys doing it to someone else; that reducing the size of the economy makes it much bigger; and that public schools should teach the Christian creation myth as fact — then the result will be that we will have a totally bewildered government, created in the collective image of its own people — and that government being one that can’t find its own ass, using both hands.

    Rick

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