Friday, June 13, 2014

Some odd observations about Cantor's loss.

There were a couple of things on the New York Times editorial pages for Thursday, June 12 that I found interesting concerning the outcome of the Virginia Republican Congressional primary that spelled the end of Eric Cantor's incumbency as House Majority Leader. One was a letter from Jonathan Ansell, of Henrico, Virginia, which I quote in full:
In Virginia, anyone can vote in primaries, regardless of party affiliation. I am a Democrat who lives in the Seventh District, and I voted for David Brat as an anti-Eric Cantor vote. I know there were many Democrats who did the same thing. I don't know if people like us swung the vote or not, but we're happy he's out.
Mr. Ansell seems content with the fact that Cantor has been punished; though he doesn't say so, he may believe that replacing Cantor with Brat, even though the latter is probably more intransigently reactionary, is a net gain. As another Times letter writer, Joan White, notes, "he will not have Mr. Cantor's power."

The conventional wisdom is that the Seventh District is so deeply Republican that Brat is all but assured of victory in the general election. Josh Israel in Think Progress believes the race is "potentially competitive", based on polling that suggests a majority of residents of the district hold views on subjects like immigration that are different than Mr. Brat's. Still, another bit of conventional wisdom is that, in midterm elections, voter turnout is usually low and dominated by the voters who are angriest with the incumbent administration. So, while an upset by Brat's Democratic opponent, Jack Trammell,* isn't inconceivable, it's a very long shot and would almost certainly require an Herculean get-out-the-vote effort by the Democrats.

But then, there's another intriguing bit of information I got from yesterday's Times op-ed column by Gail Collins, who often makes my day brighter.** It seems that Cantor's attack ads against Brat called him a "liberal college professor." As an adjective, "liberal" seems to stick to "college professor" the way that "devout" does to "Catholic," or "hero" does to "cop" if you're a headline writer for a New York tabloid. Still, Milton Friedman was a college professor (OK, maybe he was the exception that proves the rule, whatever that means.) And Brat a liberal? Well, before I give Cantor four Pinocchios, I have to remember that he can plead the truth of his characterization, if only by referring to a definition of "liberal" that was current in the nineteenth century. That definition drew upon the etymological root of "liberal" which is shared with "liberty." The project of the nineteenth century liberals was to achieve what has come to be called "negative liberty": the freedom to conduct one's trade and one's life unfettered by the arbitrary power of the monarchy or hereditary aristocracy. This classic liberalism comes close to what is today called libertarianism. In today's usage, "liberal" as a political descriptor has taken on a second meaning of "liberal" as used in non-political discourse: "generous" or "munificent." (Here some of my Republican friends will want to add, "...with the taxpayers' money!" That leads to an argument we can have later. I'm working on a post that discusses how the meaning of "conservative" has changed as much, if not more, than has that of "liberal.") Today's liberalism embraces what has come to be called "positive liberty," as well as recognizing what it believes to be necessary limits on negative liberty. For more of my views on this subject, see "Genghis Kahn: the first liberal?" Anyway, Collins's column had me wondering how many people voted for Brat thinking he really is a liberal, in the contemporary sense. Well, maybe some of those Democrats who crossed over to vote in the GOP primary did.

Brian Beuteler, in that reliable scourge of conventional wisdom The New Republic,*** writes that Cantor's loss is really no big deal.

I was amused to see Cantor, in the photo above, wearing a Spitzer tie. Someday the word will get out that it's the cravat of political calamity.
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*  Both Brat and Trammell are professors at Randolph-Macon College. Whatever happens in November, we know that Randy Mac will be represented in Congress.

**Consider this, from Collins's Cantor column:
[W]e really do not need the Republicans in the House to become even more paranoid about a primary from the right. They’ve been nervous for a long time, but this is a whole new scenario. It’s the difference between worrying about burglars and hearing that a gopher in your neighbor’s backyard suddenly grew to be 6 feet long, broke down the door and ate all the furniture.
***Reliable, that is, until you get comfortable with the notion that conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Then TNR publishes a piece by Franklin Foer with the title "In Defense of Conventional Wisdom."