By Peter Galuszka
Political analysts and the media are still trying to tease out the meaning of soon-to-be-former House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss last week to an obscure college professor.
Two major themes seem to be emerging. One is what the Tea Party’s role was and what the Tea Party really is. The second is how the Big Media missed the story of winner David Brat’s surprising strength, although a number of local publications did get it, including the Chesterfield Observer, a suburban weekly that I write for (although not about politics) and won a special accolade in this morning’s New York Times.
The Times also had a piece Sunday on its front page noting just how closely tied Cantor is to Corporate America. Aerospace giant Boeing saw its stock plummet just after Cantor was clobbered. Over the years, Cantor has gladly done the bidding of big companies, notably in managed care and finance. His donors provide a ready chart.
He’s backed the continuation of the Export-Import Bank that helps guarantee loans for foreign sales (to Boeing no less) and helped kill a bill that would have increased the capital gains tax made by alpha-seeking and ultra-rich hedge fund managers. Cantor does know about big business because he is a lawyer and has a degree in real estate. His wife, Diana, has worked for such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. And, of course, Cantor was hatched and grew up in Richmond’s cliquish business community.
The interesting trend here is how Brat, touching a surprisingly sensitive populist nerve, targeted Cantor’s cozy links to Big Business along with the usual complaint menu about illegal immigrants and government spending. Brat hit Cantor for various corporate bailouts, including TARP, backing Medicare Plan D and two unfunded wars.
Such criticism resonated with his supporters, who are conservatives. But unlike the country club Republicans of yesteryear, these voters might be throwbacks to the Gilded Age during the era of gigantic trusts. I am strolling through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” which looks at Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft at the turn of the 19th century and it is fascinating reading.
Being a Republican then meant being an upstart and independent-minded troublemaker, not a defender of the status quo and big business interests. The public seemed remarkable well informed and the media was filled with brilliant journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and S.S. McClure who took apart trust-builders such as John D. Rockefeller.
There was a real sense that too much economic power was being concentrated in two few hands and if you look at what’s happening today with the mergers of airlines, cable companies and banks, you get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The result back then was long-standing legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. The concerns were inequality, lopsided economic clout and the tendency for big companies to abuse their power.
It is in this sphere where the Tea Party types, whomever they are really, might be on to something. I’m all for leniency and compassion on immigration issues but I have to say that some of the anti-Cantor comments might have harkened back to the days of McClure’s Magazine and Tarbell’s extraordinarily detailed dissection of Standard Oil.
Sadly, the journalist profession has been gutted by cost-cutting, which is one reason why the Beltway types missed the Cantor story and scrappy little papers like the Chesterfield Observer got it. If there is growth in the news media, the hot trend is setting up “data-driven” Websites but as the Times notes, these proved inadequate as well in last week’s election because they relied on imperfect data. In other words, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how lively the prose is. What really matters is shoe leather journalism and not numbers crunching.
On-the-ground reporting can capture important clues such as how Cantor misused his Majority Leader bodyguards and Black Suburban SUVs to keep his constituents at bay on the rare occasions he actually sought them out. Otherwise, he seemed to be sequestered at expensive steakhouses. Voters pummeled by the Great Recession got the message.
Add up all of these trends and you might start understanding why Cantor’s defeat was so important. It posits who exactly the Tea Party is and what they actually stand for. It could be the start of a movement as historically significant as the one 125 years ago.