In his wonderful book "The Joys of Yiddish,” the late, great humorist and linguist Leo Rosten used the following story to illustrate his dictionary entry for “chazzan,” the Yiddish word for “cantor:”
At the time of the creation, it is said, every living creature was told what his duties would be, and was asked by the angels to suggest the length of its life span.
The horse, told that men would ride on his back, said "In that case, please - twenty years of life will be enough for me."
The donkey, told he would bear heavy burdens and hear many curses, said "I'll be satisfied with twenty years, too."
The cantor, told he would do nothing but sing hymns, asked for sixty years. The angels felt that was too much, and suggested forty. The cantor protested "I think I ought to get sixty years!"
So the angels took ten years from the life of the horse and ten from the life of the donkey, and added them to the forty of the cantor.
That's why, say the Jews, a cantor sings beautifully for the first forty years of his life... for the next ten, sounds like a horse... and for the ten after that, brays like a donkey.
The story has a moral.
When Eric Cantor arrived in the House of Representatives, he looked like a solid hard-line conservative. That’s what got him elected in 2000; a commitment to be a tough, uncompromising voice of the right. In 2001, for example, his first year in office, he received a perfect 100% rating from the American Conservative Union (ACU), the primary conservative source for determining federal legislative purity and apostasy.
In his seven terms, he remained generally conservative, but his rise in the Republican party leadership came at a cost.
In 2008, he had a 92% ACU average. Last year, he scored only an 84%.
That doesn’t mean he turned liberal. Perhaps it doesn’t even mean he “went RINO.” But it may be an indicator that he was catching the Potomac Fever so well known in Washington, DC.
In recent years, as Republican Majority Leader in the House, and therefore the second most powerful legislator, his judgment has been flawed. While he remained a solid conservative on most issues, he chose the biggest of issues on which to be wrong. Again, this isn’t unusual, but it’s hardly a welcome sight.
Anyone can question the specific choices any rating agency, but let’s look at 2013 for example. In the ACU’s eyes, Eric Cantor voted wrong last year on the Woodall budget (a harder-hitting rival budget that would have defunded obamacare and other unconstitutional and unwise programs), the farm bill (pork-laden and full of bad economic policy), and the Chabot amendment (which would have eliminated several government agencies). He even voted to allow the sequester to be gutted in 2013, one of the few truly responsible budget compromises wrested from the current administration.
It is often a choice made when a representative enters the leadership: remain pure or have the opportunity to shape policy in the right general direction? If done well, that can be a worthwhile choice.
But the representative must always remember the purpose of compromise in politics: Don’t insist on everything you want (or you’re bound to lose), just insist on moving in the right direction. If you want to cut taxes in half, compromise by cutting them by a quarter. If you want to eliminate a department, compromise by defunding it by 30%. These are legitimate compromises.
Too often, the Republican Party has “compromised” in the wrong direction. Too often, we have said we want a big tax cut, and we’ve settled for a small tax hike instead of a huge one. We’ve said we want to eliminate a rogue agency, and we reduce its budget’s rate of increase. We’ve allowed the compromises to be in the left’s direction, rather than ever in the right’s.
After a century of such “compromises,” we can easily see what this weak approach has gotten us. The conservative movement demands a correction.
And on June 10, 2014, part of that correction may have been achieved, as the Republican Majority Leader lost his Virginia primary to a Tea Party challenger.
Cantor’s errant votes were a part of the reason; while still generally conservative, he had lost his 100% ACU rating, making his district question whether he had in fact become one of the representatives who went native, despite being one of the rare ones for whom Washington was so geographically close, he could have easily remained grounded, simply by spending time in his district.
But this, Cantor had not done. Anecdotal reports are that Eric Cantor allowed his leadership role to serve as an excuse to stay out of his district outside of election time. Communication with his office grew impersonal, he no longer seemed like a representative of the people.
When he spoke of intraparty quarrels, he sided with the establishment over the Tea Party insurgents. While a party’s disagreement with the tactics of political novices may be legitimate (some Tea Party amateurs’ missteps have cost the party important seats in the last two cycles, though no more than the missteps of establishment candidates have), it’s critical that a respect for the line between ideological and tactical disputes be present.
Cantor became one of those in leadership who viewed the Tea Party movement as an enemy, rather than a key element of the party’s conscience. This was a mistake; he set himself up as an enemy of the party’s very base, despite a cumulative voting record that should have insulated him.
Most importantly, however, Cantor’s recent flirtation with compromise on immigration reform sealed his fate. In the weeks running up to his very party’s primary, Cantor was no longer behaving like the firebrand conservative that his district first elected seven terms ago. He had gone establishment, and worse, was advocating that the whole party do so, in supporting the amnesty approach to illegal immigration that his entire party knows will be the death knell of both the party and the country.
In the eyes of Eric Cantor’s district, it was time to go. The numbers came in on election night, and sealed the deal, to the surprise of talking heads across the dial. The seven term congressman fell to a 56-44 defeat.
Congratulations and best wishes to David Brat, the primary winner and next Congressman from Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District.
May Mr. Brat learn from the ancient lesson of the cantor, and may he serve well for as long as he can, then leave on his own terms before he loses his voice.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. A former campaign manager and minor party activist, serving a term as Milwaukee’s Republican county chairman in the mid 1990s, he has now been a recovering politician for seventeen years (but, as with any addiction, you’re never really cured…)
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