On Tuesday, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to a right-wing challenger, everybody went berserk. It was “an earthquake,” a “shocking upset,” a “national wave,” the Tea Party had “turned the tables” on the hated establishment, etc., etc. Cantor’s loss opened up the No. 2 slot in GOP leadership—and with it, a chance for the Tea Party insurgents who knocked off Cantor, and their allies in Congress and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, to take control of the Republican Party.
This should have been a pivotal moment because their desire to seize control of the party has been the defining feature of the Tea Party movement ever since it stormed Washington in 2010. House Speaker John Boehner called for leadership elections on June 19 and then … crickets. Nobody stepped forward to run. Within 48 hours, Boehner’s and Cantor’s preferred successor—blue-state, pro-immigration-reform, Establishment-pillar Representative Kevin McCarthy of California—had seemingly rounded up enough support to ascend to the majority leader spot unchallenged.
Ordinarily in politics when a prime spot opens up, hyperambitious lawmakers gin up a phony “draft” movement to create a fictitious impression that they’re modest, Cincinnatus types who aren’t falling all over themselves to climb the greasy pole and take power. What’s happened with the Tea Party, remarkably, is the precise opposite: Having knocked off an important party leader, they’re genuinely desperate to draft someone to fill his role and they’re coming up empty, again and again and again.
For all that pundits are declaiming about the weakness of the GOP establishment in the face of Cantor’s loss, I think something more like the opposite is being revealed: Presented with the best chance they’ll probably ever have to take control of the party, the hard-liners look about to fail. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants—but first, one of you has to man up and run for leadership.”
UPDATE: After much Hamlet-ing, Rep. Raul Labrador has announced that he’ll challenge McCarthy for the open majority leader slot. Labrador is a second-term, staunch conservative from Idaho. But he doesn’t really change the point I made above. As one GOP lawmaker close to Labrador told National Journal‘s Tim Alberta, “Raul isn’t running to win. Raul is running to prove a point.”