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In all my years of covering election nights, through all the frustrations inherent in dealing with candidates and campaigns, I have never once resorted to chiding someone who ended up on the losing side. I will admit, though, that after Eric Cantor's stunning defeat Tuesday night, I was tempted to check back in with his press secretary, Megan Whittemore, who had informed me, when I decided to write about the primary a week earlier, that Cantor would not be granting me an interview on the substance of his record.
Whittemore told me that there really wasn't a story in Cantor's race against economics professor Dave Brat, that I'd just be wasting time on a fringe candidate, and that "real people" cared about the "real issues" in which I apparently had no interest. (This last bit involved a lecture on how families had to pay bills at their kitchen tables and whatnot — precious minutes I can never get back.)
I raise this now not to be ungracious, but because something about the interaction feels relevant after the fact. Predictably, Cantor's defeat has undammed a flood of punditry on why he lost, most of it focusing on immigration policy or on the tea party's supposed resurgence. In truth, it's way too soon to know exactly what went on in Virginia's 7th District, and by the time we get any perspective, it's not clear that anyone will care.
But one way to look at Cantor's humiliation might be as an indictment of the culture of incumbency itself, and of the dysfunctional way in which a lot of Washington politicians get used to communicating, or don't.
I can tell you this: Cantor didn't lose because his opponent, who was backed by radio hosts and tea party activists, articulated some brilliant distillation of conservative thought. Brat struck me, when we spoke, as affable and well intended but nowhere near fluent in the complexities of policy or government. "Really, who I am is a free-market guy" is how Brat described himself. Meaning, he went on, that "regardless of race, skin color, all those kinds of things, everyone should be treated equally."
Brat said the first things he would do when he got to Washington were to "vote for term limits" and "bring the 10th Amendment into play." (That's the one that sharply limits the role of the federal government, an amendment that hasn't really been "in play" since Franklin Roosevelt.) At one point, he asked me, "Hey, is it true that taxes went up under the Ryan-Murray budget deal?" Which seemed like something maybe he should know.
It's telling that the first thing you encounter on the "What We Believe" page of Brat's website, before you even scroll down to the Pablum about conservative ideals, is a huge picture of Ronald Reagan, circa 1986. As far as Brat's concerned, that about covers it.
But, hey, at least Dave Brat talks like an actual person and engages in something resembling an actual conversation. There's not a lot of that going on in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol. What happens to members of Congress, after they've been there a while, is that they spend so much of their time giving stilted talks to one delegation or another in their office lobbies, or speaking in nonsensical generalities to the reporters who stalk them in designated public spaces, that they begin to confuse obfuscation with meaning. They start to think they're being cagey and persuasive when, really, they're just being confounding.
This isn't a new story in Washington (I remember former Senator Bob Kerrey saying once that his kids had banned him from ever again using the words "with all due respect"), but it's especially problematic at a moment when so much of political activism has moved online, where the prevailing culture tends to be informal, personal and direct. As angry as these new partisan activists may get at elected officials who seem too pragmatic or timid, what really galvanizes them is when, after they air those grievances, the politicians respond with what sound like North Korean communiqués. That's when they really start to think: Maybe this guy needs to go.
In person and offstage, Cantor can be thoughtful and candid, very much unlike the villainous geek Democrats portray him to be. But you just have to follow Cantor's Twitter feed — a droning mix of voting announcements, attacks on the White House and meaningless non sequiturs — to understand how trite and stilted his projection of himself had started to sound after years in leadership.
"We need to empower every single child to have the best education and the best future" is a typical Cantor tweet. Or how about: "Let's focus on what we should be focusing on which is a better economy and #AnAmericaThatWorks." You get the idea.
If Cantor was having an intern do his tweeting, that's a problem right there. If he was actually writing that drivel himself, it's just horrifying.
I wasn't at the district convention last month where delegates actually booed Cantor and then voted down his pick for local party chairman, but it's a safe bet that what they heard from Cantor, as he attacked his challenger from the podium, was that same condescending tone, as if aimed at a C-SPAN camera and not a crowd of voters whose support he badly needed. There's some garbled audio of that speech bouncing around YouTube; it sounds about as heartfelt and spontaneous as your average consent decree.
Even Cantor's own ads and mailers (the $2 million-plus barrage he unleashed against this supposed fringe candidate), in which he attacked Brat as a "liberal college professor" and accused him of plotting to take away Social Security, probably reinforced this sense among primary voters that the congressman had become just another Washington dissembler. The message didn't ring true, and it sounded like exactly the kind of rhetoric these lawmakers lob at one another all day long — a classic distillation of the political culture no one can stand.
Of course, establishment politicians will take lessons from an upset as profound as this one, and there are plenty they can take. Maybe Republicans on the Hill really will decide it's moronic to pursue something like immigration reform when the populist, anti-immigrant wave can rise up so powerfully. Or maybe, as I posited last week, some conservatives will look at what happened to Cantor and conclude that it's impossible to bank hard enough to the right to placate the ideologues, so you might as well vote your conscience instead.
But one thing they and their aides should probably take away, especially if they're climbing their way into senior roles, is that it's a dangerous moment in American politics to sound like the tinny voice of an institution, rather than someone with genuine conviction and the courage to defend it. It's all fine and good to bore the rest of us with vapid soliloquies about the "real people" who struggle back in the "real America." Just don't be shocked if they no longer feel like standing in line to vote for you.