Cantor's Clash With Successor Mirrors Larger War Inside GOP

In another example of a fight playing out in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Representative Dave Brat disagree over tactics, not policy.

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Representative Dave Brat reacts as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says it would be “the end of his political career” if Brat does not support Trump for president during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 9, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A new battle has broken out within the war for the Republican Party featuring Eric Cantor, formerly second-in-command of the House, and the man who defeated him in a shocking primary upset last year, Representative Dave Brat.

In a New York Times op-ed after House Speaker John Boehner announced his plans to resign, Boehner's former deputy inveighed against “a number of voices on the right” who, Cantor said, claim Republicans can “undo the president’s agenda—with him still in office, mind you—and enact into law a conservative vision for government, without compromise.”

“The tragedy here is that these voices have not been honest with our fellow conservatives,” Cantor continued. “They have not been honest about what can be accomplished when your party controls Congress, but not the White House. As a result we missed chances to achieve important policies for the good of the country.”

Now, Brat is accusing his former opponent of “intellectual gymnastics” and said his remarks reflect “crass politics.”

“They're upside down and make no sense at all,” Brat said on Tuesday, standing in the Speaker's Lobby off the House floor. “The gist of his remarks is that we're unrealistic—some members of Congress are unrealistic. For doing what? For following the agenda that he put down on paper?”

Brat was referring to the Pledge to America, a paper released by Republican leaders ahead of the 2010 election that vowed to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and “stop out-of-control spending,” among other things.

“We're following out his own logic and his own document, and he's calling us unrealistic for following his own document. Boy, that takes some intellectual gymnastics to get your head around that one,” the freshman said.

And therein lies the heart of the dispute between the pragmatist and ideological wings in the House: it's about tactics, not policy.

Both camps have endorsed repealing the Affordable Care Act, defunding Planned Parenthood, and undoing President Barack Obama's policies on immigration, climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal. Where there are substantive disagreements, GOP leaders have in many cases deferred to the passionate voices calling for far-right policies.

The question is how far they should go—or, put another way, how much damage they're willing to do—in pursuit of those goals while Obama holds the ultimate trump card, the veto pen. Should they shut down the government (again)? Should they permit a catastrophic default by refusing to raise the debt limit?

The pragmatic wing of the party sees these tactics as untenable and self-defeating. The 16-day shutdown in 2013, triggered by the fight over Obamacare funding, ended in total surrender after Obama refused to budge. The Tea Party wing says that such battles are worth fighting, and that Republicans—including leaders—promised to fight them when they asked for votes before their crushing 2014 victories. They say the party will ultimately be rewarded for its conviction. What's the point of controlling Congress, they lament, if they can't pursue their core goals?

In the Republican-leaning Virginia district that Cantor had held since 2001, Brat's argument won decisively. His ouster of a sitting House majority leader in a primary was the first in U.S. history.

The sentiments behind his angst are omnipresent in the battle for the 2016 Republican nomination. The clearest indication is the dominance of “outsider” candidates promising to shatter the status quo. Billionaire Donald Trump has led the field for months, while retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have crept up into the top three in the most recent poll released Wednesday by USA Today/Suffolk. Every GOP candidate is working to create distance from Washington, including Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Even former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, says he'll take on “Mount Washington.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Texas Governor Rick Perry both tried to burnish their anti-Washington credentials, but instead became the first two to drop out.

The fact Obama can force a two-thirds majority for passage of bills is an argument in favor of the pragmatic wing in steering clear of certain fights. But, their critics on the right argue, they helped create the energy that has now turned against them by stoking the flames against Obamacare, executive actions on immigration, and now Planned Parenthood in an attempt to mobilize the base. (Bloomberg Philanthropies provides financial support for the organization.)

“Today was a win for the Washington Cartel, and another setback for the American people," Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a leader of the ideological wing and a presidential candidate, said on Wednesday after the Senate passed a bill to fund the government, with Planned Parenthood money intact. “Republican leadership chose to abandon its constitutional power of the purse and to fund 100 percent of President Obama’s failed agenda. This was a mistake, and it’s why people are so frustrated with Washington.”

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