From all the hand-wringing over soon-to-be-former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's astonishing defeat in a GOP primary Tuesday in Virginia, you might think he had been a conciliatory figure determined to keep the federal government on track even when it meant compromising on his conservative principles. That, he was not. So it strains credulity that some pundits and pols are predicting that Republicans will now be even less willing to strike deals with Democrats, and that conservatives will be more influential in the House. It's hard to imagine how Republicans in the House could have been less willing to strike deals, or how conservatives could be more influential there.
Granted, the House GOP's hard-headedness has often been met by intransigence from Democrats in the Senate and the White House. Yet the pattern during Cantor's tenure as majority leader has been clear: House Republicans turned routine practices such as funding the government into a continual exercise in brinkmanship. They compromised only when the public backlash against Washington dysfunction became too fierce to ignore.
The political novice who defeated Cantor, Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat, attacked Cantor on a number of fronts, including how little time he spent in the district and how much money he raised from special interests. Nevertheless, much of the political establishment has zoomed in on Brat's criticism of Cantor's support for immigration reform and bipartisan deals to raise the debt ceiling, ease across-the-board budget cuts and end a six-week government shutdown. According to the conventional wisdom, the message from Virginia's 7th District is that lawmakers move toward the center at their own peril.
But if primary voters were determined to root out centrists, Cantor was the wrong place to start. For much of the Republicans' 3 1/2 years running the House, he has been the person conservatives counted on to stiffen the spine of Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). And the agenda that Cantor set for the House was almost relentlessly partisan, a conservative Republican wish list of measures to roll back programs, lift regulations and reverse administration policies.
The paralysis in Washington is a reflection of the nation's political split, as more of the electorate moves toward the wings and away from the middle. What purists need to understand, though, is that much of the country disagrees strongly with their views — and that in a divided government, neither side gets everything it wants, no matter how firmly it digs in its heels. The deals Cantor reluctantly supported were the messy product of a representative government whose constituents can reach no consensus other than the need to keep the government operating. And his defeat changes nothing about that state of affairs, which is the signal governing challenge of our day.