“Congressional Democrats were ecstatic,” The New York Times reported the morning after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected trouncing in his Republican primary. “An informal dinner party at the Georgetown apartment of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, turned into a celebration.”
On one level, this reaction is entirely understandable. Cantor’s political shape-shifting and overweening ambition earned him few friends in either party. His cynical willingness to torpedo deals worked out between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner made him particularly noxious to Democrats.
And, politics being politics, knocking off the other side’s majority leader is, inevitably, going to be a feel-good moment -- especially when the other side was only too happy to gloat about booting you out of the majority.
Yet on another level, the episode offers a disturbing commentary about the poisonous, polarized state of American politics. Democrats seized on Cantor’s loss as an opportunity to paint Republicans as increasingly loony and intransigent: “A major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” Pelosi said in an election-night statement.
New York Democrat Steve Israel, head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, predicted Republicans running “further to the far right, with the tea party striking fear into the heart of every Republican on the ballot and cementing the dysfunction that has paralyzed this Congress and prevented them from taking any action to help middle-class families.”
Well, yippee! Let’s all celebrate cementing dysfunction.
The theory here is that voters will be increasingly fed up and that Democrats may wrest some advantage from this development in swing districts. The dreary reality is that such seats are few and far between. The real-life consequence of Cantor’s loss will be to further diminish the already slim prospects for serious legislating, not only dooming immigration reform, at least in the short term, but raising the prospect of dangerous showdowns on the budget and debt ceiling.