Republicans already feared drawing primary challenges for failing to be adequately doctrinaire, which explains a lot of the dysfunction in Washington. For Republicans, the cautious move has been to refuse compromise with Democrats. Crude, across-the-board spending cuts were considered a victory. Voting over and over again to repeal Obamacare or passing a variety of bills too outre to become law has been worthless policy but attractive to Republicans seeking cover from the right.
Mainstream Republicans have been trying to pacify their party, with some success lately. But Cantor’s high-profile loss resends the message that incumbents will suffer if they drift too far from the preoccupations of the GOP base. The majority leader apparently struggled against attacks that he was involved in immigration reform and in raising the debt limit. Never mind that the nation’s immigration laws badly need refashioning and that voting to raise the debt limit is the closest Congress gets these days to voting for sanity.
Already right-wingers from deep-red territory are angling to take the open spot in the GOP House leadership. The common assumption Wednesday morning was that immigration reform is dead, at least for the year, and that doing even the most basic of legislative jobs, such as keeping the government running, will be even more difficult for the House.
A vocal group of conservatives — representing a slim minority of the country and previously encouraged by people like Cantor — will not be happy until they have a full flowering of their revolution. The GOP seemed to be coming to grips with the danger that attitude poses — not just to the Republicans’ national popularity, but also to the country that the party is supposed to be co-governing. That counterrevolution, however, suffered a devastating setback on Tuesday.
For anyone who cares about immigration reform, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, adequately funding the government or a variety of much less contentious things that a faction of conservatives dislikes, this is not good news. The country needs a functional Republican Party, responsive to broad swaths of the nation and with leaders confident enough to cooperate with Democrats, to help face its problems — or, at least, to keep the lights on. Instead, the pressure Republicans will feel to choose ideological fuming over legislative achievement, on issues large and small, will now be even greater.
Update, 11:20 a.m.: Minor edits made above.