Morning Plum: Eric Cantor doomed by fake efforts to soften GOP’s image

Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to his Tea Party challenger, predictably enough, has unleashed a din of commentary to the effect that immigration reform is now really, really, really dead. Many of the same folks saying this told us with absolute certainty that it was dead months ago, but still, Cantor’s loss changes everything and now it’s deader than ever before.

And it’s likely true that Cantor’s loss means any hopes for reform this year are extremely remote or non-existent. The story here, however, has always been that immigration reform’s fate rests entirely on John Boehner: Either he allows it to move forward or he doesn’t. Perhaps that’s much harder now, but it was always going to be hard, and its fate was always going to turn on whether Boehner decided the upsides were worth the downsides.

Much of the commentary says immigration reform is why Cantor lost, but others, such as Erick Erickson, are downplaying its role. Yes, challenger David Brat and high profile conservative commentators attacked Cantor as soft on immigration. But as the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Schapiro explains:

Cantor’s maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.

Further, Cantor — a self-styled Young Gun, who along with Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, was a symbol of Yuppie Republicanism — became a distant figure to many of his Virginia constituents, seen only on Sunday talk shows and in the pages of national newspapers.

To the degree that immigration did matter to the outcome — and I don’t claim to know either way — the key point here is that Cantor wasn’t actually an advocate of immigration reform in any meaningful sense. If anything, he was an obstacle to it. Remember, Cantor has received national attention for his efforts to make the party look more tolerant only by trying to move behind the scenes for a vote only on legalizing the DREAMers. What that push really showed is how limited his efforts to make the GOP appear more inclusive really were.  Only legalizing the DREAMers falls dramatically short of addressing the 11 million — which is what John Boehner claimed to want — yet even this was enough to get Cantor slaughtered on the issue.

Indeed, Cantor’s opponent was explicit on this point. He attacked Cantor by saying that once you let in the DREAMers, that opens the door to more reform.  What Cantor actually supported didn’t really matter. As Schapiro explains, the mere sense that he was trying to make over the GOP in the image of what Beltway media elites think is good for the party was enough for Brat to use his version of Tea Party populism effectively against Cantor.

Indeed, the scuttlebutt has held for weeks that Cantor has been trying to play both sides on immigration. Advocates believed he was telling the business guys that he was really with them on the issue, while simultaneously reassuring conservatives that he would spike Boehner’s push for reform, in a bid to win conservative support to become the next Speaker. But whatever Cantor’s actual position on this issue really was, it is entirely irrelevant. Brat called Cantor’s position “amnesty,” and used this in part to fuel what Bill Kristol calls “a broad assault on GOP elites who put the interests of American corporations over American workers, of D.C. lobbyists over American families.”

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in the House are now claiming that Cantor really, really wanted comprehensive immigration reform, and are citing his loss to put GOP leaders on notice that entertaining further thoughts on the issue will cause instant political self-immolation. All that matters here is whether GOP leaders accept this version of events.

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* THE REAL REASON CANTOR ANGERED CONSERVATIVES: Brian Beutler with an excellent take that goes back to Cantor’s heretical maneuverings on the debt limit:

In the end the right’s beef with him—as with McConnell—was about more than just affect. It was about his willingness to use power politics and procedural hijinks to cut conservatives out of the tangle when expedient. The lesson of his defeat isn’t that immigration reform is particularly poisonous, but that the right expects its leaders to understand they can’t subsume the movement’s energy for tactical purposes, then grant it only selective influence over big decisions.

And in the case of immigration reform, ironically, it’s likely this would only have constituted legalizing the DREAMers.

* DEMS PUSH BACK ON NARRATIVE OF CANTOR LOSS: Dems are highlighting the fact that Lindsey Graham, who helped shepherd the Senate immigration bill through, won his primary by a huge margin. The statement from Chuck Schumer:

“Tonight’s election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration. The Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat. Cantor’s defeat does not change the fundamental fact that Republicans will become a minority party if they don’t address our broken immigration system.”

* IMMIGRATION REFORM STILL POPULAR: Whatever the real meaning of Cantor’s loss, Americans United for Change rushes out a survey taken by robo-firm Public Policy Polling that finds 72 percent of voters in Cantor’s district support the Senate immigration bill versus only 23 percent who oppose it.

Whatever the polling shows, of course, is irrelevant: Multiple polls over the last year have shown large chunks of Republicans support immigration reform, but since the far right is setting the GOP’s agenda on this issue, public opinion realities just don’t matter.

* CANTOR LOSS WILL HAVE ‘CHILLING EFFECT’ ON GOP: Former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, a respected voice (at least among some) in the party, offers this prediction:

“When Eric Cantor, a conservative and member of the leadership, is too moderate, it sends a chilling effect to other Republicans and makes it that much harder to cross over and work together…How do you get that or anything done now? Eric is too liberal? This was the guy holding Boehner back.”

It’s going to get even harder to work with Obama?

* WHAT DOES CANTOR LOSS MEAN FOR GOP LEADERS? Byron York sums it up:

What is clear is that many Republican members will interpret Cantor’s loss as a sign that the GOP leadership is even weaker than originally thought.

Which doesn’t bode well for cooperation or governing on, well, anything.

* MORE DISAPPROVAL OF BERGDAHL SWAP: A new Washington Post poll finds that 51 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of independents, disapprove of the deal that secured Bowe Bergdahl’s return. Other polls have confirmed the same. As I noted here yesterday, the administration has simply failed to persuade the public — which appears to support the idea of No One Left Behind — that the way this was handled was the only option available.

* BUT PUBLIC APPROVES OF ACTION ON CLIMATE: A new Bloomberg News poll finds that 62 percent of Americans are willing to pay more for energy if it means reducing carbon emissions, and crucially, 51 percent say they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports government action to address climate change.

However, only five percent say climate change is the most important issue facing the country right now. This, plus the fact that Republicans can use this issue to make a broader case about government and the economy, particularly in red states, both help explain why some Dems will not embrace the new EPA rules, even if action on climate polls well.

 What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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