The irony is great. Republican right-wingers in his home district and radio talk show hosts inveighed against House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as a sell-out, establishment figure who betrayed the conservative agenda. He very likely will be succeeded as majority leader by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Cantor’s close friend and ally who supports immigration reform, voted for budget compromises including the “Plan B” solution to the fiscal cliff (which Cantor opposed, as did other hard-liners), opposed the shutdown and frankly didn’t run a very tight whip operation. I wonder whether the Cantor opponents are pleased with a replacement for Cantor who, while a nice guy, is best known for getting along really well with fellow lawmakers.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: With GOP leadership elections scheduled for June 19th, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) leaves the House floor after votes, the day after Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) announced that he'll be leaving the House Leader position on July 31st, on Capitol Hill Thursday, June 12, 2014. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is the top choice for the House Leader position. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The Post observes, “A win by McCarthy, in just his fourth term, would complete a remarkable transformation for the affable Californian, who just a year ago was dogged by criticism that he wasn’t tough enough to persuade recalcitrant GOP lawmakers to vote with the leadership on critically important issues. He also faced questions about whether his policy chops were substantive enough for the job.”

Philip Klein points out: “The American Conservative Union rated McCarthy at 72 percent compared with 84 percent for Cantor; Heritage Action ratings place Cantor at 53 percent and McCarthy at 42 percent; and Club for Growth had Cantor at 68 percent and McCarthy at 53 percent. Moving away from conservative groups, the National Journal rated Cantor the 80th most conservative member of the House while McCarthy was 170th. McCarthy voted for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that included spending that was unrelated to providing emergency aid, fought for the farm and food stamp bill, fought reforms to the federal sugar program, and backed an extension of the corporate welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank.”

Publications like Weekly Standard cheered Cantor’s demise, ignoring that Cantor was among the supporters of the reform conservative agenda it and other conservative voices have rallied behind. It will be hard to generate support for reform conservatives if their demise is instantly celebrated by the agenda’s purported supporters. Loyalty counts for something in politics.

Meanwhile, conservative contenders for the majority leader spot dropped out one by one, leaving McCarthy as the last man standing. Now hopes for a tough conservative policy wonk focus on the whip position. Putting a rising star in that slot is something I suppose, but whips are first and foremost vote counters and operatives. Whoever gets the job is unlikely to drive the agenda. Moreover, we’ve seen this week that putting an ambitious conservative in a leadership spot may be injurious to his political future.

Radio talk show hosts and tea party activists (whether actual grass-roots players or Beltway opportunists) aren’t very good at thinking a step ahead, as we saw in the shutdown folly. Here they dumped Cantor, a strong conservative, only to get a muddled GOP nominee for the Virginia 7th congressional district who is unable to answer some basic policy questions and a weak majority leader to replace Cantor.

I don’t see how this is a big win for the tea party, the GOP, Virginia or the country. But then again, we’re in a mode right now where emotional catharsis is more important that governance, fighting is more important than winning and both activists and media are addicted to apocalyptic rhetoric and sweeping predictions, unmoored to reality. The media prefer to hyperventilate over Cantor’s loss than to delve into the reasons  the Middle East is going up in flames or why the economy can’t get out of low gear. One can only hope the broader electorate exercises greater discretion in the midterm and 2016 elections and saner, more competent leaders eventually prevail.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.