As the political and media worlds continue to marvel at Eric Cantor’s unprecedented primary defeat, Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is working quickly to replace Cantor as soon as possible. A senior staffer leaked to USA Today that Cantor will step down as majority leader at the end of July, meaning that Republicans will have slightly over a month and a half of behind-the-scenes politicking before deciding upon a new majority leader.
The deliberations will prove a delicate issue for the GOP brass, which has increasingly lost control over its own party, especially given the widely discussed (though never executed) coup against Boehner for the speakership last election cycle. With Cantor gone, the establishment’s position of power is in even greater jeopardy, and they will need strong ally around which the rest of the party can rally if they are to prevent an “outsider” from seizing the spot.
Fortunately for GOP leadership, they have a laundry list of potential candidates. Whips and the chairs of the most powerful committees (e.g., Rules, Ways and Means, Budget) are the most common prospects, but the circumstances are decidedly uncommon. Such promotions are usually decided upon following a retirement, not a resignation, and removing a pro-establishment chair from his committee to be majority leader would put that committee at risk of swinging toward the Tea Party without a replacement chair ready in the wings. Further, whips are tasked with ensuring that members toe the party line, lockstep behind the Speaker and his lieutenants. It is a job that often makes one unpopular, especially given that three factions within the GOP are all fighting to determine where to place that party line in the first place. This is not to say that the GOP establishment will not choose a whip or a committee chair as their pick for Cantor’s position – just that there are a number of considerations beyond the seniority and rank of potential candidates.
Before they have a chance to work through these dilemmas, the Tea Party should quickly decide amongst itself who it wants as the new majority leader. The sooner congressional Tea Partiers coalesce around a single individual, the better chance they have at building a coalition within the rest of their party to push that individual into the most powerful position in the House of Representatives short of the Speaker of the House.
The problem for the Tea Party (its legitimate membership, or at least its moderately principled allies) is that the majority of potential candidates simply lack the seniority to seriously pursue the position. The bulk of them have been in Congress for less than two terms, making any aspiration of becoming the majority leader a longshot at best.
Further, the Tea Party faces its recurring identity crisis in which members of the Religious Right self-identify with the Tea Party while the more consistently free market Tea Partiers are marginalized almost to the point of “Tea Party” possessing little significance as a label. The effects of a Religious Right majority leader would extend far beyond the halls of Congress, as making a man like Rep. Paul Broun (though he is retiring due to a failed attempt at the US Senate) the majority leader would inevitably lead to the embarrassment of the party nationwide. If the House Republicans are to select an individual to be their spokesman on the national stage, they would do well to pick someone who does not confuse private religious beliefs with the role of government – that is, the protection of individual rights. To compound the dangerous that the Religious Right poses in this instance, member of the Religious Right could very easily foil a Tea Partier, dividing the party behind closed doors while the establishment silently acquires the support needed for its chosen candidate.
There is little that can be done to prevent a push from the Religious Right to place one of its own in the position of majority leader, save this: finding an alternative quickly and building support for that individual before the Religious Right has an opportunity to do the same.
The real question is, who is that alternative? Around whom can the anti-establishment wing of the party quickly rally, who is simultaneously not a member of the Religious Right, and who can force concessions from their establishment leadership?
Few possibilities come to mind. One that does, however, is Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa’s record is not perfect – no one’s is in the House – but it is above par when it comes to the majority of Republicans today. He has his pitfalls – chiefly, Fourth Amendment issues (e.g., the PATRIOT Act, FISA, etc.), immigration, and typical Republican stances on social issues (save stem cell research, which he does support). Alternatively, he has his upsides – he has been a vigilant opponent of the corruption within the Obama Administration on issues like the IRS targeting conservative groups and the Administration’s attempt to downplay the Benghazi terrorist attacks of 9/11/12; he voted against both George Bush and Barack Obama’s numerous stimulus packages of 2008 and 2009 (save “Cash for Clunkers,” as far as an overview of his voting record demonstrates); he has criticized No Child Left Behind; and he, like Rep. Paul Ryan (who is far from perfect), has at least discussed the notion of entitlement reform, particularly Social Security in which he supports privatization.
For all he gets wrong, there is much that he gets right that is simply not common among Republicans – especially its leadership. Unlike the GOP establishment that fears being viewed as “extreme,” Issa does not mind stating things as they are and opposing the Obama Administration when it needs to be opposed. In today’s world of Mitt Romneys, a Republican with a spine is something admirable in itself, even if the best assessment of his policy record is that it is “above par.” That is the kind of leader that the Republican Party needs amidst its intellectual turmoil – one who moves the debate away from pragmatism and towards principles and toward free market policies, even if his support for those policies is inconsistent. Issa can serve as that sort of transitional leader as no other can, to wait as the traditional establishment is slowly weeded out and the next generation of Republican leaders rises to prominence.
Potentially, there are other candidates of performing the same role. If they exist, they had better move quickly. The GOP establishment is already making known its intentions to block any such outsiders from the position. Rep. Peter King (D R-NY) appeared on MSNBC to declare that the GOP establishment “can’t allow Eric’s defeat… [to] allow the Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls to take over the party, or their disciples to take over the party.” King further noted that he had been contacted by various members of his party who are interested in filling the position – before it was even clear that Cantor was stepping down early. Needless to say, the kinds of Republicans contacting King for his endorsement are not likely part of the GOP’s anti-establishment wing.
It is clear, then, that the GOP establishment is already in the process of finding “their man.” Their opponents should do the same – carefully, but quickly. The sooner a single individual can rise to the occasion, the sooner the Tea Party can campaign within their own party to win the majority leader’s office. Whether it be Issa or someone else, the Tea Party’s chosen candidate must be decided upon as early as possible to provide the best chance for victory. Time is of the essence.