Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Brat victory proves ideas have power over money
Special to the Daily
Eight days ago, few knew who David Brat was. For the politically addicted, his name is now one to conjure with.
Mr. Brat, a professor of economics and ethics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, defeated Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for the seventh Congressional District in Virginia. “Defeated” is a weak description. Eric Cantor was sliced-and-diced, pureed, fried and fricasseed. It was the first primary defeat suffered by a sitting majority leader since the office was created in 1899, and it was authoritative: 12 points separated Brat from his opponent.
For those who complain about the corrupting effects of “money in politics” — as long as it’s the Koch brothers’ money, not Tom Steyer’s — this primary was another lesson in what happens when lots of money clashes with good ideas: good ideas often prevail. Eric Cantor’s war chest amounted to over $5.4 million; Mr. Brat spent about $235,000 to beat the pants off him. In Colorado, the state that recently saw the defeat of Amendment 66 despite all the money Nanny Bloomberg and his cronies could throw at it, one would think such a reminder unnecessary, but there it is, and we should remember it come November.
We might step back and take a deep breath before drawing too-broad conclusions about the messages the Cantor-Brat race sends. Yes, rejection of “comprehensive immigration reform” was prominent in Mr. Brat’s campaign. But more influential than his opposition to “amnesty” might have been Rep. Cantor’s apparent flip-flopping on the topic. Emulating the carp-in-the-bottom-of-a-boat moves of a former presidential candidate, Eric Cantor was for it before he was against it. When people pay attention, this sort of cravenness inspires suspicion, not support.
There were local issues which might have been more influential than the broader, national questions pundits and professional politicians are now trying to paint onto Cantor’s defeat. By all accounts, the representative didn’t understand that his constituents actually wanted constituent services. One telling criticism was that he spent Election Day in Washington, not in his district. Professor Brat, in contrast, spent most of the primary season knocking on doors, talking to the Hoi Polloi and otherwise engaging in retail politics. In so doing, he boosted the enthusiasm of his supporters, and it paid off.
Rep. Cantor was also known to be ambitious. He sought to quickly mount the ladder of offices in the House, and in so doing resorted to an all-too-common calculation: trading principles for power. He was open about the process, but his honesty did not overcome the image he created of a conniving climber. Especially damaging, he was seen as abandoning the TEA Party supporters who propelled him into the limelight in favor of hob-nobbing with the White House on vital issues of the day.
Eric Cantor preferred meeting with the powerful, the moneymen, the well-connected guardians of the levers of power. He is a well-respected and effective mediator and negotiator. But as he schmoozed with White House aides, Congressional opponents, lobbyists and others over steaks at Bobby Van’s Grill and Steakhouse, the folks back in Barboursville, Louisa, Henrico and Hannover were feeling left out — so they reminded him who is really in charge in our Republic. The representative forgot one of the cardinal rules of politics, best expressed by former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal: “ya dance with the one who brung ya …” And he paid the price.
National or local; seminal or humdrum; whatever the reasons, Mr. Brat’s victory created a maelstrom of fear and loathing in Washington. The Republican Old Guard have been powerfully roiled by a victory which none of them anticipated and which the punditocracy with whom they share a cozy relationship assured them could never happen. Constitutional Conservatives, Libertarian Leaners and anti-tax agitators had been effectively crushed and buried. Like those who obsess about money in politics, they forgot an essential fact: ideas are very powerful — and enormously difficult to kill.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are rubbing their hands, gleeful over another opportunity to paint Republicans as “too extreme for America.” Nancy Pelosi has already fired the first shot in this boring and predictable fusillade.
Both sides should stop to consider: David Brat ran as an unapologetic conservative. He neither obfuscated nor dissembled. His argument against Eric Cantor was that his opponent compromised, trimmed, mischaracterized and engaged in Washington’s version of “politics as usual.” And Brat beat him like a rented mule.
In a post-victory interview, Mr. Brat noted that “The American people want to pay attention to serious ideas again. Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from … cheap political rhetoric.”
We shall soon see if he’s right.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.
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