Since the rise of the Tea Party, Republican incumbents in the House have faced a basic political question: Do they represent safe districts, in which case the threat to their survival comes from right-wing populists challenging them in primaries? Or do they represent swing districts, where the graver danger comes from a moderate Democrat running against them in a general election?
In the former case, which occurs more often, the ideal stance is to be a principled and unreasonable right-wing conservative. Those subject to Tea Party challenge must not, under any circumstances, cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling, regularize the status of undocumented immigrants, or accept the legal existence of Obamacare. For the smaller group of House members in swing districts, the situation is the reverse. Compromise, reasonableness, and moderation assume their normal place as political virtues.
The problem Rep. Eric Cantor faced, and the reason for his unexpected defeat in a Virginia primary Tuesday night, is that he was unable to make this choice in either direction. That was not due to any lack of political sophistication on his part, but because of his role as House majority leader. Like House Speaker John Boehner, Cantor was not in a position to choose between the Tea Party and non-Tea Party. The House leadership must represent both factions, which are not necessarily at war with each other, but which face fundamentally contrary political imperatives.
The result of trying to split this difference is an unpalatable mush, delicious to no one. For Boehner, a pragmatist at heart, it has meant an inability to deliver his caucus in support of the budget deals he would have liked to have made with President Obama and a constant, simmering threat of rebellion from his own back benches. For the more ideological Cantor, who tried to represent the Tea Party radicals but also coveted Boehner’s job, it yielded a robotic incoherence: no but perhaps yes on immigration reform, no or yes on raising the debt ceiling, often in the same sentence. Vagueness and elision made Cantor inane. An interview with him was like a failed Turing Test.
When it came to his own district, which turned even redder in the last round of redistricting, Cantor would have been better off adopting the clear, principled rejectionism of his opponent David Brat. In his Virginia primary, splitting the difference between ideology and compromise showed Cantor’s lack of bottom. Trying to bend toward the rational but not negotiate with Obama meant compromising with Obama. Cantor pandered ubiquitously, which was annoying to all and satisfying to none.
This is the current cross of the House Republican leadership, the reason Cantor lost, and the reason Boehner has had such a miserable tenure as speaker. You cannot side both with the faction that wants to protest and with the faction that would prefer to govern. But if your job is to lead the Republicans in Congress, neither can you choose between them.
A version of this article also appeared in the Financial Times.