Slightly more important than the void Eric Cantor left in our hearts is the one he’s leaving in the House Republican leadership. Cantor, who was unexpectedly trounced by a long-shot Tea Party candidate in his primary on Tuesday, announced yesterday that he will resign as House majority leader. Long before he’d made his intentions known, a group of ambitious House Republicans began positioning themselves to scramble over the still-twitching corpse of Cantor’s political career.
It’s not immediately clear why anyone would want to be majority leader; it’s basically a glorified administrative job running the day-to-day business of the House on behalf of the speaker. Sure, you have a lot of sway in setting the legislative agenda and you get to go on Sunday shows and all that, but you also have to keep members of your fractious and unruly caucus in line. When your caucus contains Louie Gohmert and Steve King, that job is not fun.
But the power-hungry will seek power, and now that Cantor’s been knifed by the Tea Party for being a RINO, a bunch of his colleagues want to take over his job and, sooner or later, get knifed themselves.
In the era of Tea Party activism, being an effective and responsible government leader is political suicide. Cantor was for a long time an intransigent and obstructionist lout who did everything in his power to make sure the government did nothing of any real significance, and he cruised along just fine. Then he cast votes to reopen government and allow the U.S. to pay interest on its debts, leaving him despised among people who believe True Conservatism is a government that’s shut down and in default.
That’s the burden of leadership within the government – sometimes you’re actually expected to make the government work. It requires compromise and seeking out common ground with the opposition and other qualities conservatives generally abhor.
Right now it’s generally assumed that there are two leading contenders for Cantor’s job: Rep. Kevin McCarthy. R-Calif., Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. McCarthy is already a member of the leadership, having served as majority whip since 2011, and was (with Cantor) a founding member of the GOP Young Guns. Sessions is the chairman of the House Rules Committee and is about as conservative as you could hope for. And, if you’re going by the criteria against which Cantor was judged, they’re both RINO sellouts.
As a member of the leadership, McCarthy has exposed himself to the same land mines that took out Cantor. “It is going to happen in a step-by-step method,” McCarthy said of immigration reform last November on "Face the Nation." McCarthy voted for the clean bill to raise the debt ceiling in February. He voted to end the government shutdown and, by the logic of Tea Partyers, fully fund the Affordable Care Act. His lifetime rating from Heritage Action (touted by Erick Erickson as the standard by which to gauge conservatism) is 50 percent – slightly lower than Eric Cantor’s 53 percent.
Sessions, for his part, has already been challenged by the Tea Party and survived. Dallas Tea Party leader Katrina Pearson, with the backing of groups like FreedomWorks, ran against Sessions for the Republican nomination earlier this year and lost by 27 points. Pierson threw everything she could at Sessions, attacking him for voting in favor of the omnibus spending package in January and suggesting that he wasn’t committed enough to blocking Obamacare. (Sessions, unlike Cantor and McCarthy, sided with the anti-Obamacare dead-enders and voted against ending the government shutdown.) The campaign featured a late-stage “shocking” revelation that Sessions secretly supports “amnesty.” His score from Heritage Action, while better than McCarthy’s, is still a tepid 67 percent.
The other candidate who might make a go of it is Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. He's an actual conservative darling (86 percent pure, per Heritage Action), though he does have some dings against him (he voted for the omnibus spending bill and the Ryan-Murray budget). Hensarling is the type of conservative that conservatives like: He hates compromise. He dislikes it so much, in fact, that his strong adherence to conservative principles prevents him from achieving anything of substance in his role as chairman of the Financial Services Committee.
In that way he’s a good representation of the tension between the Tea Party ethos and the realities of governing. Inflexible devotion to right-wing dogma will make you popular with the activists and protect you against primary challenges, but you’ll get nothing done as a legislator. To be the leader of the majority party in the House means you will inevitably be in the position of having to bend a bit to get things done, which will aggravate the purity patrol and threaten your position in Congress.
Cantor tried to have it both ways and ended up getting tossed. His successor will probably shift even further rightward (if that’s possible) to keep the base happy, but there’s a built-in limit to how far he’ll be able to go. And if he stays in power long enough, they’ll turn on him.