Eric Cantor’s Legacy Is One Of Economic Destruction

June 12, 2014 6:00 a.m.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

American politics took a Game of Thrones-worthy plot twist on Tuesday as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary by a 12-point margin to Dave Brat, an underfunded right-wing challenger.

Some people blame Cantor’s attempt to play a double game on immigration reform, leading Brat to attack him as soft on “amnesty,” or general Tea Party hostility to anyone who could be called “establishment” (and for all his attempt to court the right, Cantor is very, very establishment).

Here are the two most convincing arguments I’ve heard to explain Cantor’s loss:

Conservative activist-pundit Erick Erickson says that, in addition to antagonizing conservative activists, Cantor was trying too hard to be a national figure at the expense of his district:

Cantor’s constituent services moved more toward focusing on running the Republican House majority than his congressional district. K Street, the den of Washington lobbyists, became his chief constituency … Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman.

Another take comes from political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, who weighed in on Twitter as the results came in Tuesday:

I’m less interested in examining why Cantor lost than I am in Bernstein’s explanation of how his loss goes a long way to showing what his legacy will be. As much as anyone else in Congress, Cantor is responsible for the loud, showy, total-war nature of Republican opposition — summoning up the forces that defeated him last night.

From day one — literally, the night of President Obama’s first inauguration — Cantor was leading the charge to not just oppose Obama, but to delegitimize him — denying him the conciliatory, bipartisan policy style he campaigned on, and turning even policy successes into the kind of grueling partisan battles that voters dislike. It was a deeply cynical maneuver, but a successful one. Cantor helped unite the Republican caucus around this scorched-earth strategy, and played a major role in the 2010 campaign that leveraged the grim results of that strategy into a new majority.

In 2011, Cantor became Majority Leader thanks in part to the winning challengers he recruited and funded. In the midst of a still-sputtering economy, he introduced a three-word mantra that would define his now-abruptly-ended time as Majority Leader: “Cut and Grow.”

“Cut and Grow” was always a sick joke. It’s basic Republican ideology dressed up as a solution to the Great Recession — rather like having a warehouse full of chemicals you can’t sell, and deciding to pitch them to sick people as medicine.

The “Cut and Grow” strategy worked like an anvil works as a life preserver. It dragged down an economy that desperately needed rescue.

Cantor complained loudly that the Senate was blocking the House’s job bills, but had the chutzpah to make this claim about “jobs bills” like a resolution expressing disapproval of net neutrality. He has consistently opposed extending unemployment benefits for the thousands of long-term unemployed. He even introduced the novel strategy of demanding spending cuts to offset emergency disaster relief.

The 2011 debt-ceiling standoff is the height of Cantorism, a perfect illustration of big angry talk and economically counterproductive results. Republicans began to describe the routine increase in the debt ceiling as a favor to Obama, for which they needed concessions in order to “give” it to him. The debt ceiling is an accounting formality that has catastrophic results if left undone, but in one of the great acts of political spin in the past few years, Cantor called it a “leverage moment” to make President Obama capitulate to the Republican ideological agenda.

The result was a miserable summer of collapsing consumer confidence and slowed job growth. Cantor wouldn’t even stay at the table for the negotiations he forced to happen with his debt-ceiling extortion.

After months of efforts to end the (completely optional) crisis, Congress passed and the President signed the Budget Control Act, which created the pointless “supercommittee” process and eventually led to sequestration, a blunt-instrument package of cuts, including cuts to programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels. Sequestration was terrible policy – It was yet another drag on an economy – and, even after his strategy made it happen, Cantor still complained about the sequester and blamed Obama for it.

If you want to know Eric Cantor’s legacy, it’s not just about the forces that he encouraged and that backfired on him last night. It’s a political style and an ideology that actively set back the economy, time after time. His cynical advocacy of “Cut and Grow” has had real negative consequences.

He tried to ride the tiger into battle, and the tiger ate him. His loss is richly deserved and poetically just, but it comes too late.

Eric Cantor will be fine — he’ll get a lobbying job, board-of-director seats, “visiting fellow” offers at think tanks, Wall Street Journal op-eds, and of course a full Congressional pension. If only the thousands of people whose unemployment came from his policy choices could be so lucky.

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.

This post has been updated.

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