Since the rise of the Tea Party, Republican incumbents in the House of Representatives have faced a basic political question. Do they represent safe districts, in which case the threat to their survival comes from rightwing 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 rightwing conservative. Those subject to a Tea Party challenge must not, under any circumstances, cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling, regularise the status of undocumented immigrants or accept the legal existence of the Affordable Care Act.
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 Eric Cantor faced, and the reason for his unexpected defeat in a Virginia primary last night, is that he was unable to make this choice in either direction. This was not because of any lack of political sophistication on his part but because of his role as House majority leader. Read more