Get Real on Cantor’s Defeat and Defense: A Setback, Not Doomsday

June 16, 2014

If you’ve been reading the news since last Tuesday evening, you might have heard that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat is the worst thing that has ever happened.

Various accounts have said Cantor’s loss to Tea Party upstart Dave Brat is bad news for President Obama, political moderates, the NSA, big business, Wall Street, the U.S. economy, the country, and (you probably saw this coming…) EVERYONE. Of course, Cantor’s demise has killed immigration reform. And the Republican Civil War either is about to explode, or has just ended with a resounding Tea Party victory.

Now joining the list of the aggrieved constituencies is defense. A Defense News headline cried out, “Cantor’s Stunning Defeat Removes ‘Only Leader’ on Defense in GOP’s Top Ranks.”

On Tuesday night, my email inbox stacked up with expletive-laced emails from people around Washington and inside the defense community expressing utter shock and dismay. I may have even authored a few such emails myself. But it’s time to turn down the temperature on the doomsday prognostications and examine the true impact of Eric Cantor’s defeat.

To be clear, Eric Cantor’s untimely fall from House leadership is bad news for defense.

Anytime a reliable defense ally is removed from congressional leadership, it is a setback. Cantor’s personal views were shaped by his strong connection to Israel (he is the only Jewish Republican in the House) and ties to Virginia’s expansive network of military bases and defense firms. Cantor had a deep ideological commitment to a Republican internationalist foreign policy and defending America’s role in the world, even at a time when that position seemed on the wane within the GOP. It’s true that Cantor may not have been the favorite player of some defense advocates in the 2011 drama that led to the Budget Control Act and defense cuts totaling $1 trillion under sequestration (he urged Boehner to reject a compromise with President Obama on tax revenue). But since then, Cantor has been a consistent supporter of efforts to reverse sequestration cuts and a reliable ally of defense hawks in the House.

Beyond Cantor’s personal connection to defense, Cantor’s defeat means an unavoidable loss of institutional knowledge. Proficiency in defense and foreign policy doesn’t come from the occasional glance at a staffer-prepared briefing book. It takes years to develop the organizational skills and interpersonal relationships that are required in high-level legislative policy management. It’s one thing to give a good speech at a policy conference, or to get it right on a series of NDAA amendment votes. It takes a much deeper level of expertise to craft, advance, and implement a coherent and comprehensive defense oversight and policy agenda for the House of Representatives. No matter who replaces Cantor, House leadership has lost some muscle memory.

The political impact of his defeat will make ambitious legislation essentially impossible in the near to medium term. In other words, bipartisan compromise of the kind required to reverse sequestration cuts seems highly unlikely. That’s not because Cantor actually lost because of his willingness to embark on such compromises. Much has been made about Cantor’s support for immigration reform, for example, as a factor Dave Brat seized upon in his insurgent campaign. But every indication is that Cantor lost largely because he lost touch with the grassroots in his district and ran an ineffective campaign.

However, why Cantor actually lost is not nearly as important as why his fellow lawmakers believe he lost. Assuming the worst, Republican lawmakers are likely to avoid the kind of political risks that expose them to a restive conservative base of voters who are in no mood for anything that smells like compromise with President Obama. Crucially for defense, the Brat victory in Virginia elevates the political morale and standing of fiscal hawks eager to cut spending regardless of its impact on the military and national security.

All of this is bad for defense. But by no means is it doomsday.

Those who say a sequestration deal is now dead should explain when they thought it was alive. Reversing sequestration is a straightforward political calculation whose terms have not changed much since the adoption of the Budget Control Act in 2011. Unless and until Republicans and Democrats are able to reach a compromise package of spending cuts (likely entitlement savings) and tax reforms, sequestration is here to stay. Cantor’s defeat did not kill a sequestration deal. It merely confirmed that the deal had no pulse.

Cantor’s defeat is not likely to have any further electoral impacts of significance to defense. The dynamics in the remaining GOP primaries are mostly unchanged. Among those, the Mississippi Republican primary most closely resembles the Cantor-Brat battle, making it perhaps the most logical race to see an impact from last Tuesday’s results. 76-year-old Senator Thad Cochran faces Tea Party-backed attorney Chris McDaniel in a tight incumbent-insurgent battle. Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, was already struggling when he finished behind McDaniel in the first round of primary voting. Most experts had been predicting Cochran was in big trouble before Cantor lost. Perhaps a jolt of energy in the conservative grassroots could provide a late lift to McDaniel. But that would merely continue an existing trend.

Finally, Cantor’s absence from House leadership is unlikely to change the Republican position on defense. Contrary to the aforementioned Defense News report, Eric Cantor is not the “only leader” on defense in House leadership. Under Speaker Boehner, House Republicans have consistently proposed increased defense budgets and reversing sequestration cuts. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan – who plays an outsized role as a leader in the Republican conference – has been critical to this effort. The Ryan budget increases defense spending every year through 2024 – when defense spending would reach $696 billion under this year’s version of the plan. He also took a lead role in the eponymous Ryan-Murray budget deal, which eased sequestration cuts with other spending reforms. In a speech at the Center for a New American Security a few days ago, Ryan likened himself to his mentor Jack Kemp, adopting the label of a “heavily armed dove.” While we should not be quick to use American military power, he said, “we cannot withdraw from the world.”

Moreover, leadership elections set for June 19 seem likely to produce continuity on defense, not a game-changing shakeup. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the leading conservative and fiscal hawk poised to make a run for Majority Leader, has declined to run. House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy and his allies were already saying he had the votes to win before his main opposition, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, exited the race after a brief candidacy. While Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador has joined the race as the conservative alternative, McCarthy remains in a strong position to step up to Majority Leader. McCarthy has been a critic of sequestration’s impact on military readiness. His district borders that of Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, and they share many of the same defense equities. Notably, McKeon was one of the earliest public backers of McCarthy’s bid for Majority Leader.

Cantor’s defeat will not produce a defense-skeptic as Speaker of the House – at least not for now. Many expected Speaker Boehner to leave the speakership after the election, making way for Cantor to succeed him. With Cantor out of the picture, some said, the Speaker’s gavel may be in play. Not so fast. Cantor’s succession of Boehner was never certain to begin with. But with Cantor’s loss, Boehner is now highly likely to stay on as Speaker in the next Congress out of concern for the stability of the conference and the House.

That leaves the question of Boehner’s succession unanswered. Hensarling seems to be keeping his powder dry for a speakership run, calculating that joining Boehner’s leadership team is not the best route to the top. Many establishment types will hope that McCarthy can build himself into a more conceivable heir apparent to Boehner. Others will hold out hopes that Paul Ryan will put his hat in the ring after a few years as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. No matter who succeeds Boehner, by the time that decision is made, Cantor’s loss will be far in the rear view.

For now, Cantor’s sudden departure deprives defense of a reliable supporter in the House leadership, but does little to change the policy direction of the House, let alone Washington more broadly. It signals that relief from sequestration is not likely in the near term – a dismal state of affairs perhaps, but one that existed with Cantor as Majority Leader. In the final analysis, Cantor’s exit from the stage amounts to change in the cast, not in the plot.


Dustin Walker is the Founding Editor of RealClearDefense. He previously served as a communications staffer for the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign and the House Armed Services Committee.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore