“So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” – Beyoncé
There is an episode in the first season of the American House of Cards (I will try to elide significant spoilers) where the show’s antihero, Democratic Congressman Frank Underwood of South Carolina, is burdened in the middle of crucial legislative negotiations—on an education bill that will boost his cache in the Democratic White House—with the oddest of interruptions.
A teenager in his district has died in a way that (notwithstanding her own irresponsibility—don’t text and drive, folks) implicates certain decisions made by the local leadership—and supported by Rep. Underwood. A certain ornery (and classless) perennial rival of Frank’s is gunning to use the incident to stir up the kind of grassroots passion that could accomplish the rare feat of unseating a member of the House Majority leadership.
When informed about the situation by his loyal aide, Doug Stamper, this key exchange occurs:
Frank: He’s after my seat again. Has he learned absolutely nothing?
Doug: It’s a full-on smear campaign, boss. He’s out to destroy you.
Frank: With this? It’s a peach, for Christ sake. Let him make a fool out of himself.
Doug: No, he will make a fool out of you. If he spins this right, gets national coverage–
Frank: National coverage? It’s a joke.
Doug: And you will be the butt of it. We can’t afford that right now, not when you’re in the spotlight with the education bill.
Frank: This thing has caused me so much damn trouble.
Doug: I know.
Frank: So who should I call: the parents?
Doug: Phone call’s not going to cut it. You need to go down there.
Frank: Can it wait until Monday?
Doug: We get on this thing right now, we can contain it. We wait until Monday, then there’s no way to know how much this is going to blow up on us.
The vital core of Doug’s argument—to which Frank ultimately succumbs—is that no matter how grand and important the backroom machinations of Washington may seem to a given politician and his elite conspirators, the foundation of the games of Congress rests on winning elections. An elected official who wishes to say in office cannot hand-waive away the “small-ball” discontent of his “two-bit” constituents. He (or she) has to be present in real-time to keep them continuously convinced that he shares their values, cares for their needs, and represents their concerns. A politician who forgets this role in the intrigues of the high politics of the Capitol is a politician on track to early retirement.
All of which brings us to the curious case of Eric Cantor, who was presumed to be the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Whatever might be said of his values, leadership, policy positions, ability to play well with others, or influence-peddling affinity for money-laden New York, no report of the many I read about Cantor was quite so damning as this one from Sean Trende, one of Cantor’s erstwhile constituents:
“I have yet to read anything suggesting that Cantor had a good home style. His staff is consistently described as aloof, and his constituent service is lacking. This is consistent with my experience. Anecdotes are not data, but after passage of the Affordable Care Act, I called his office with a question about what autism therapies for my son would now be covered (I lived in Cantor’s district for six years). I never heard back. This surprised me, as constituent questions rarely go unanswered. I never once saw Cantor, not at county fairs, not at school board meetings, and not in the parades that would sometimes march past our house (we lived on a major thoroughfare). This isn’t to say that Cantor never did these things, only that they weren’t frequent enough to register; he wasn’t the stereotypical Southern politician whose face showed up at every event.”
I have contacted Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, the congressman for my old high school, or his staff at different times for different reasons. I have received a prompt response every time. As a native of Florida, where I used to vote, I emailed Sen. Bill Nelson in the midst of the healthcare debate. (Full disclosure: in my college years, when I was liberal and silly, I was inclined to support the Democrats’ still-materializing healthcare reform effort. But unlike Mitt Romney, I have the decency to own up to the youthful mistake and sincerely apologize for it.) The population of Florida is more than 24 times larger than that of Cantor’s district, and Nelson was decidedly on the wrong side of a lot of voters on that issue—meaning his office was undoubtedly inundated by inquiries. Nevertheless, I got my (somewhat less prompt) response from Nelson like I did from Connolly.
That Cantor’s office did not deign to respond to his constituent speaks volumes. Of course, a member will not cater their position on any issue to each constituent concern—nor should they be expected to—but the necessity of at least a polite, pro forma response is never so blisteringly oblivious as when erstwhile supporters begrudgingly conclude their own congressman does not regard them as worthy of even basic courtesy. That a Southern gentleman, of all congressmen, would be so rude is as inexcusable as it is terminally arrogant. (It’s also stupid, given that successful primary challenges are concentrated in the South.)
In looking at some other candidates who (often shockingly) lost winnable races, this theme of distance emerges. Republican Mike Castle barely competed in his Delaware primary, while Christine O’Donnell’s supporters played to win and did. Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley was uninterested in properly campaigning for the U.S. Senate; Republican Scott Brown asked a broad coalition for votes and got them. Former Sen. Dick Lugar famously did not even live in Indiana, and now he doesn’t represent Hoosier voters.
Likewise, failed presidential candidates, from Democrat Chris Dodd to Republican Michele Bachmann, have routinely fallen into expedited retirement after their constituents lost patience with the manifold downsides of their all-consuming national ambitions. In his aforementioned article in Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende notes that GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham cruised to re-nomination in deep-red South Carolina, despite the well-known hostility of the conservative base, with the help of exceptional constituent engagement.
But unlike Graham—and quite like the other electoral losers—Cantor was far too absorbed in the imagined heights of his ambition to realize that he was falling without style or a parachute.
Consider how much seething constituent anger must have slow-cooked under the aegis of Cantor’s blithe ignorance (or indifference). Consider the many reports of the outgoing Majority Leader’s disengagement from his district and increasing focus on the intrigues of the Acela Corridor’s insular game of thrones. Consider that his approval rating back home sat at just 43 percent among Republicans (within the margin of error from his 44.5 percent in the primary), disapproval of the GOP leadership was much higher, and two-thirds of all voters in the seventh district outright disapproved of the Majority Leader.
Reflect on how out of touch Cantor’s operation must have been to let his position deteriorate so far without even noticing it. Facing hardly any organized opposition, the House Majority Leader was heavily booed at his own rally when confronting a primary challenger of so little repute that even notoriously primary-challenging Tea Party organizations spent not a dime. The incumbent then went on to inspire an exceptionally large portion of his own constituents to nominate that underfunded, barely known challenger by a 10-point margin.
In the end, of course, it is difficult to isolate why exactly a given incumbent loses this or that race, especially when primary losses are so rare. Most theories are probably wrong or incomplete, but if there is a single bipartisan lesson that emerges from Leader Cantor’s catastrophic fall, it is to remember, as Frank Underwood does, the “small-ball crap” of the supposedly little people in your own backyard. After all, chances are that those “little people” will remember and someday act on that John Ruskin quote my Dad loved to invoke in my youth:
“He who can take no interest in what is small will take false interest in what is great.”