Howard Fineman on Eric Cantor’s Defeat and the Battle for the Soul of the GOP

June 16, 2014

Few intra-party political battles have been as astonishing and unexpected as last week’s primary loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to religious-conservative challenger David Brat, who was quickly embraced by the Tea Party after his victory. To discuss what this means for the future of the GOP, and how religion has waxed and waned as a factor in American politics, Point of Inquiry welcomes the great political analyst Howard Fineman.

Howard Fineman is the editorial director of The Huffington Post Media Group, an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, former senior editor and columnist for Newsweek, and author of a best-selling book about political history called The Thirteen American Arguments.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, June 16th, 2014. 

Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry from the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority through to the emergence of the Tea Party, American conservatism has long wrestled with different factions, religious and secular. But few Republican insiders have been quite as astonishing as what’s happening right now. Last week, for the first time in American history, the House majority leader lost his own primary. Eric Cantor was a solid conservative Republican. He was almost certainly going to be the next speaker of the House. He was whispered about in some quarters as a potential future president. But his own party’s voters booted him out in favor of an even more conservative candidate and unknown economics professor to discuss what this means for the future of the GOP and how religion has waxed and waned as a factor in American politics. He’s a great political analyst, Howard Fineman. He’s the former senior editor and chief political correspondent of Newsweek. He’s interviewed every major presidential candidate of the past 30 years. He’s now the editorial director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group and an NBC News analyst who seems to be on The Chris Matthews Show only slightly more frequently than Chris Matthews himself. Howard, thanks for being on point of inquiry. I’m glad to be with you, Josh. So frame this for us. A primary election involving only 65000 suburban Virginia voters has now reshaped the House leadership. It’s emboldened the Tea Party. It’s probably killed immigration reform. What happened? 

The simple explanation, I think, is that Eric Cantor grew too distant from his district and from the Virginia conservative grass roots that he very carefully cultivated, helped expand, but lost sight of as he contemplated that bigger political national future that you talked about that. That’s the basic point. 

And what is that base like? Explain who these voters are, what they care about? 

Well, I think that his district, his district, which is the seventh district of Virginia, was recently expanded in the latest redrawing of district lines in the state and throughout the country to include some more rural areas. 

I think he felt that he was fine in having that happen and he may, I think, even encouraged it. 

And so it’s a mix of part of suburban Richmond and some pretty conservative and more rural areas of the state and in sort of the fringes of a metropolitan area. And perhaps somewhat paradoxically, I think some of those those those those fringes, the the part right on the very edge between rural America and exurban America, if you will, or some of the most politically conservative in the country, because those people lived and lived there. They’re protecting their their way of life. They have mixed attitudes about the city with a capital C. and so forth. And these are people for whom so-called traditional values, if you will. And I say so-called because everybody’s values are traditional in one way or another. But what you would think of in terms of. 

Prayer in terms of the role of religion in not only in their private life, but but in the public square, so to speak. Increasingly pro-life and vehemently pro-life on abortion, something that, by the way, was was not true in the Bible Belt a generation or two ago. But after Roe v. Wade and 1973 became a point of of union between the old conservative Catholics and in the North and Bible Belt Protestants in the south. So those are the people that that Eric Cantor successfully sold himself to over the years, even though he was from Richmond, even though he obviously wanted to be a power broker in Washington. For the most part, he was able to sort of ride those two horses simultaneously. But even he and he has great political skill, was unable to do it this time around because he was just seen as too much of a player in the House of Cards, if you will, and thought enough of a player in terms of traditional values and especially in terms of immigration, which is not a matter of religion, but a matter of good old American xenophobia. 

Is it getting harder and harder to ride those two horses that you talk about? I mean, you know, Reagan did a great job of being able to bring together these these disparate interests and then an embed them under one big umbrella called the Republican Party. 

Is that is that being unpicked? Is that disentangling? 

Yes, I think it has. It is. It is falling apart. Ronald Reagan brought them together to share a little history here with Jimmy Carter, who who first lured evangelical Christians back into politics. They were basically out of it for a couple of generations, going back to the Scopes trial and going back to arguments about evolution that had been made in the famous books and movies from a century ago. And because of that, they had because of the ridicule they suffered and because from their point of view and because of just the desire to stay out of politics, that they they had been out of the debate. It was Jimmy Carter who himself was an evangelical Christian who first drew some of those people tentatively back into politics. And then ironically, one of the reasons he lost is that they abandoned him and were more interested in what Ronald Reagan had to say because Reagan did put together that coalition. But what Reagan had going for him, George, was communism and the Soviet Union, the evil empire. In other words, all that all the different disparate elements of the conservative movement and their basically three of them. There is the libertarian gold standard crowd, too. To oversimplify, there is the evangel. There’s the traditional values crowd which under Reagan joined, as I say, conservative Catholics in the northern cities and the and the Bible Belt and then the sort of anti-government, anti statist A.I. Soviet Union back in the day, anti-communist faction bound all those three together. 

And with the fall of the Soviet Union, I think that glue kind of disappear. And you’ve seen increasing difficulty in holding those pieces together. And some, again, to a large extent, those pieces are fighting. Three pieces are fighting with each other now. 

A lot’s been made of the fact that Eric Cantor’s Jewish. I don’t think that that was probably a decisive factor. It certainly hasn’t been in any of his previous elections in which he’s been victorious. But how does that play in at all? 

Well, it’s interesting. I asked Patrick Caddell, who is a sort of legendary anti-establishment Democratic poll poll taker. 

He was George McGovern’s poll taker and 70 to Jimmy Carter’s, interestingly, in 76 and 80. And he’s been around obviously forever and he knows a lot. And I asked him that question because he’d studied the election, the primary election, very closely down in Virginia. And I said, well, was. Was Canters religion a part of it? And he said, no, it wasn’t news to people in his district that he was Jewish. 

And I from what I can tell, I don’t think that on the list of factors that it was anywhere near the top. 

And I’m not even sure it was on the bottom. 

And I don’t think this election was fought mostly on. It wasn’t fought even really much at all. On religious or traditional values grounds. And Cantor was fairly unassailable, at least in terms of his votes and as his positions on things like abortion and prayer and so forth. He was pretty down the line, conservative on that. But you still have to wonder, I mean, after all and it’s it’s more interesting for the fact that he was the only Jewish Republican in Congress. And that’s a big change because there was a time a generation ago when there was a thing called liberal. 

Dems or moderate Republicans? And they were pro civil rights, pro free speech. City based Republicans. They were union Republicans, if you will. And there were a number of prominent Jewish Republicans who wielded a lot of power, or the most famous was probably Jacob Javits of New York. And they were a real strain on the Republican Party. They don’t exist. They don’t exist anymore. They’ve all become Democrats. 

And there are some some Jewish conservative Republicans. But there was only one. And there was only one Jew in Congress and that was Republican in Congress. 

And that was Eric Cantor speaking more boldly about the way that religion plays into conservative politics in America. You started that in Kentucky as a reporter. What did you see? What did you make of the interface between the Bible Belt and Washington? 

I think that probably, Josh, if I were to write a a single wire service style story to summarize everything I’ve seen by way of fundamental changes in American politics in my time. And I’ve been a reporter since nineteen seventy three fall of nineteen seventy three. So it’s more than 40 years. I would say, number one, the naked role of money in politics and how it’s kind of come out of the closet and come to dominate everything we’ve gone from brown, you know, brown paper bags full of cash to, you know, proud declarations by billionaires. They’re going to drop 250 million dollars into a campaign. That’s one big change. The fall of communism would be another. And the rise of religion directly in politics would be the third and specifically the rise of the Bible Belt openly as the Bible Belt in American politics. And that was a sea change that, as I say, Carter began the you know, the first inklings of that turned into a into a floodtide with Ronald Reagan. And it’s really come to define in many ways, the base of the Republican Party coming. 

I’m interested in what it was before then because I’m. So you mean I’m not old enough to even be able to envisage it. Right. 

So you’ve got these people. Let’s talk Prikhodko. You’ve got people who care deeply about their faith, about their religion, obviously issues like abortion. I mean, I guess same sex relationships weren’t even on the horizon then. But, you know, by 1969 they were, they were something. And if you believe that the creator of the universe has has a dog in the political fight, why weren’t those people motivated by their faith to choose particular political candidates? 

Well, because, as I say well, first of all, you need to understand and I’ve studied this and written about it both journalistically and as as as an author. I wrote a book called The Thirteen American Arguments, which I have to say is is available on Amazon and at your local bookstore, mesclun. And it’s still selling because. Well, because it’s being used as a college and high school text. And one of the chapters is about religion in America. 

And the fact is the interplay between the two has been ever present. You shouldn’t forget. We shouldn’t forget that some of the most fiery speeches of the revolution were delivered from pulpits of churches in Boston and elsewhere. That’s where John Adams famously gave one of it. I mean, Samuel Adams famously gave one of his his his most fiery political speeches. 

So and the churches back in those times were hotbeds of both support for for Britain and the Tories, but also more particularly for the revolution. 

But what the founders wanted to do was not oppose religion, but create a marketplace of faith or lack thereof for anybody to participate in. So in a way, what they did with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Was to say there can’t be an official religion. But we want every religion to bloom. 

And indeed, people who don’t want to adopt a creed, who don’t believe in God, who who view things from the rationalist point of view that, in fact, many of the founders had. 

I mean, they were supreme examples of the Enlightenment in many ways and the faith and reason, Jefferson being a classic among them, that that could all flourish that. And that’s that. It was a marketplace of of of faith. Faith in God or faith and reason. And there was no there were no limits. The founders were quite conscious of wanting to say any faith or none. In other words, their horizon was wide enough, especially during this time with the Enlightenment, to comprehend people who put their faith in reason. And so that that was their idea. And and they they didn’t mind people talking about God and politics, I don’t think. And I think there was a lot of talk about God and politics throughout throughout American history, as long as no one faith or faith itself was enshrined as a matter of policy. And as a matter of law. And of course, that’s that that’s a fuzzy line. And that’s one we’ve been arguing about from the very beginning. As I say in my book, we’ve argued about it from the beginning of our time here in North America, and we’ll probably continue arguing about it forever. 

And yet it strikes me that the people in America who are the loudest about talking about the founding fathers and their commitment to I mean, our modern these are these people who are doing the speaking right now. They commitment to the founding principles of this country tend to be the people who interpret the Founding Fathers vision as a much more religious one than the one that you’ve just depicted. Does it frustrate you that there has come to be seen, this this perception that the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, that the founding fathers were essentially deeply religious men? 

Yes, it annoys me, which is one reason I wrote the book that I wrote. But I think in a democracy and we still do have one, sometimes barely, but we do and certainly compared to most of the rest of the world, that that history is always contentious. We’re always arguing over our own history and everybody has access to that history to make of it what they will, which is, of course, the exact opposite situation from from a country like China, which I was just visiting. We’re basically history is controlled by the people in power. The Politburo decides what’s history and what isn’t. Which is why Tiananmen Square is never mentioned by the power elite in China here in America. Everybody is free to research, argue about and present their version of our own history. And if if the people in the Bible Belt and evangelical leaders who want to portray the founders as fellow evangelicals, you want to try to do so. They’re free to do it. But it’s the responsibility of others who view it differently and who maybe have studied it a little more dispassionately to come into the public square and make their case. That’s what you’ve got to do. That’s what we have to do here. I mean, our whole country is built on an argument that was a thesis about book and it runs best. The country works best when there’s a kind of equipoise created by all these arguments. Now, that’s a thesis it’s hard for me to defend these days because Washington is so seems so hopelessly gridlocked that through much of our history, that’s the way things have worked. 

Yes, I speak to that gridlock. How have we got. What what kind of line have we crossed between constructive argument that leads to a better outcome and a paralysis where everyone is hunkered down in these opposing camps where nothing gets done? What’s what is that Rubicon that’s been crossed and why? 

Well, it’s it’s easy to say that things are different now because people do not accept the validity of the other’s right to argue. But to some extent, that’s always been true in American history. There’s a paranoid streak here, paradoxically, because we’re a nation of immigrants. 

So every succeeding wave that comes in we think of is somehow not quite human. And we don’t always want to accept their ability to even state a case. 

So to some extent, it’s always been like that. But right now, I think the combination of that attitude, the sort of you don’t deserve to make an argument. 

Plus, the way the media works right now, I think have exacerbated things. 

I think that’s the way our communications are set up now. There’s an even more exaggerated premium on sort of labeling and name calling. Then there’s been in the past and also it’s not face to face the connected. What’s gone wrong here? Joosh, in my view, is the connective tissue of community that bound the country together. 

Despite the paranoia, despite the vicious arguments, the fight, in spite of the fact that the civil war that killed six or seven hundred thousand people, which by population was a huge number at the time, there was a sense of community that kept us all together as Americans. You don’t really often, interestingly enough, except in a few arenas like sports, maybe fashion and so forth, you know, you don’t sense that people don’t spend much time with each other. There’s no face to fit. There’s less face to face communication through which people have to grant the humanity of the other person instead. That’s sort of this a bloodless thing that’s that’s that’s that’s drained of humanity in which people are hurling accusations at each other across the digital void. And that’s kind of where we are. 

Is that a is that a media thing? Is that a demographic thing? Is that because we love living in the same communities anymore? Is it because of a breakdown of communal events? What is it? 

It’s all those things. It’s all those things. There was a there was a book written a few years ago. I forget the name of the author, but I know that it happens to people of Bill Clinton favorite books and Bill Clinton. It’s always interesting, though. It’s interesting. You know, it’s on Bill Clinton’s mind intellectually at least, and it’s called the big storms. 

And it’s about how the country is separating itself demographically, ideologically and to greater in a new way geographically into into separate universes practically. 

That’s what led in the old days to the civil war between the north and the south, because they were two systems of looking at the world, one that involves slavery and agriculture and the other that didn’t end when one was more industrial and commercial and and and open, if you will, in some respects, were recreating that not in big blocks of geography, but more cities and globally connected cities vs. more rural parts of the country or even different neighborhoods. You know, people live in people like to live, seek out because of the mobility the country. People like to seek out congenial neighborhoods and spaces, even different parts of suburbs to live in, like in Washington, D.C. as an example, to oversimplify again, although all the liberals live east of the Potomac and all the conservatives live west of the Potomac, one in Maryland, one group in Maryland, the other in Virginia. So there’s a big sort going on. And and so it’s it’s that it’s sociology, but it’s also media. And in and I think we haven’t yet fully understood and won’t the consequences of the way we communicate these days. 

That makes me think also. But just to bring it back to the Eric Cantor scenario, the conservative talk radio scene was fully aware of how vulnerable Cantor was or was going in and championing this other guy and culture. And Mark Levine and Laura Ingram and Glenn Beck were were all about this. Right. Saying that Cantor is no good and should be vulnerable and should be booted out. It came as a complete shock to me and other people in my media circles. But these guys were clearly on to something and they have 50 million people who listen to them here and rarely the twain. 

Nate, you know, is that people who listen to conservative talk radio don’t watch MSNBC and vice versa. And it was ever thus meaning that there were always sort of conservative newspapers and liberal newspapers. As you probably know, newspapers in America began as organs of political parties. 

So that’s not new. What’s new to me, I think, is the all enveloping not not only is the media today reductive in an emphasis on accusation and labeling and so on, as I was saying, but media is immersive in a way that it didn’t used to be so that people actually can spend all of their waking hours in the company of, if not enveloped by the type of media that they prefer. 

So if you’re if you’re a salesman out on the road and you’re a sort of Ayn Rand conservative and you were only worried about the next sale and or whatever, and Enderly also happened to be a Bible believing Christian. 

And you’re driving around somewhere in a rural suburb trying to sell whatever you’re selling. 

You’ve got the radio on. You’re listening to conservative talk radio all day. 

And when you get home, you flip on Fox and you’re further immersed in that one universe. 

Alternatively, you know, you’re an epidemiologist in Boston. You listen to NPR in the morning. You watch MSNBC in the afternoon and evening. You know, you subscribe to the nation. ET cetera, et cetera. You’re in an entirely other universe. 

And and they don’t. 

Overlap and because they’re so immersive. People have no idea what the others are thinking and because they don’t live near them and because they don’t have the time, because both people in the family are working a jobs cetera, they don’t have the time to meet their neighbors. They know a lot of that connective tissue, both in real life and in media life, has been lost. When I started in the business, Josh, everybody basically sat in front of their television and watched a guy named Walter Cronkite close every broadcast by saying, and that’s the way it is. So, you know, and then most people sort of nod and say, yeah, I guess that’s the way it is. That world is gone. 

Do we underestimate the power of not just the right wing conservative radio hosts, but the people to whom they’re speaking? Ultimately, I mean, I guess what I’m saying is what I think of the religious right. When I think of the deeply conservative parts of America, I kind of think think of them as being on the wrong side of history, as being a withering rump that is getting left behind by the forces of progress. 

However, as you just said, that maybe the blinkered view of an Australian who spends all of his time on either the Northeast or the West Coast and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in those those parts of the country, should I be more worried? 


And for two reasons, first of all, as you say, by coastal America is not all or necessarily even the most critical part of America, the most urgent and important part of America. That’s for one, the land of the fly over people matters more than people on the coasts understand. And that’s why I’m always thank and feel blessed for having spent almost five years in Kentucky and having grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And, you know, there’s a lot more to America than than the coasts. That’s the first thing. And yes, but yes, it is a withering romp, certainly demographically, because we’re basically talking about white Protestants and conservative Catholics here. But never underestimate the power of people who feel that their life is threatened, that their way of life is threatened, that their values are threatened, that they’re surrounded by horses they can’t understand or control. And I have great sympathy, I would say, and I think for for such people, because in a way, we’re all we’re all in that same boat. We’re all faced by forces we can’t understand. And we all feel threatened in one way or another. But it’s worth it. 

And I think they’re right that too many people in the media don’t understand their life from the inside out. 

And it’s everybody’s duty to try to understand as much about others in America. That’s why I’m in the business that I’m in. And you, as a as a wonderful observer from all of America, from another country, you know, we need to explain people to each other. That’s that’s one of the roles of journalism. 

And there isn’t enough of that being done within when it is done from one direction or the other. It tends to be condescending. It tends to be full of preconceptions that are not dispelled. And, you know, it’s we’re in a bad way in that respect in this country. 

People don’t understand each other at all. You mentioned getting inside what it’s like to be them, you know, their own internal life. And yet so much of I feel what energizes them. It has nothing to do with their own internal life, but has to do with other people’s lives. Whether or not gay people can do this or that, whether or not another person can get an abortion, whether or not these a big kind of social movements that I understand why they’re so, so upset and obsessed with things that don’t actually the kind of completely abstract in the day to day living of their own lives. Whereas I feel that progressives or secular people or whatever you want to call us, moderates are more concerned with the actual reality of what we’re doing in the here and now rather than, I guess, abstract moral principles that affect people who aren’t us. 

Right. Well, I, I, I agree with you on that. The interesting thing is, why do those people feel they have to try to impose their way on others is because they’re trying to build a wall as a social wall, as sort of wall of society to protect themselves. I think. 

That’s that’s difficult. And as you say, there’s a withering rump ultimately untenable. Fact is, what’s happening at a lot of the report to me, one of the most amazing things that’s happened the last 20, 10 years or so, Josh, and it’s happening increasingly is to see the Republican Party, which was built on this evangelical base. Have they more, for want of a better term, worldly members of their coalition throw up their hands and say what’s wrong with gay rights? I mean, even Dick Cheney is of the world, for example, because of their own personal and family experience are changing in that regard. And and that’s that’s that’s a fight within the Republican Party that they’re going to have to deal with that they haven’t dealt with yet. And also, by the way, there’s a conflict between the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, as I was explaining before, the ones who care about markets and nothing else. And the gold standard, et cetera, those libertarians who never cared about restricting the rights of gays and lesbians, etc. And now they’re being joined by the sort of establishment Republicans, the old Republican establishment, the George H.W. Bush’s of the world, who left to their own, and George W. Bush, who left to their own devices, would say, fine, we don’t care. We know plenty. I know. I know half my fraternity brothers were gay or whatever the heck know. They’re they’re they’re moving quickly. Meanwhile, the evangelical Bible Belt base full of fear is still trying to impose their values on others because they’re afraid to lose their own way of life. And that’s a conflict that you’re going to see played out, I predict, over the next couple of years. And the Republican Party, it it’s it’s it’s it’s bigger and deeper than people understand. 

Yeah. I want to I actually want to bring that up. And I want to end by getting your prognostication about that. Like, where does American conservatism go from here, assuming that you can find some kind of common ground perhaps between libertarian conservatives and maybe even progressives, you know, maybe the opponents of a big adventurous American military, a big, expensive, adventurous American military. Opponents of social conservatism. People who want government to be small and smart and to keep out of our bedrooms. 

By the way, there’s an anti corporate anti Wall Street right there, too, which is one of the things that defeated Eric Cantor. 

Yeah. Okay, so what? So as we see this play out in American conservatism, how does that end up winning? And what happens to social conservatives and religious conservatives as they see their party being taken away from? 

Well, as as was the case with Ronald Reagan. 

And indeed, as was the case with Bill Clinton when he put the Democratic Party back together to win two elections and end Barack Obama on his on the Democratic side, it will take a person. 

It takes a personality. I mean, the way America runs, the way the way America operates in elections is by individuals and their stories, their narrative, their their life story, whether it’s the and what it will take, what it will take for the Republicans is somebody out of that, in my view, somebody who resonates with enough with the evangelicals to speak to them. But who’s able to make a broader case to the Republican Party in the country, just as Bill Clinton was the guy who kind of swam upstream in the rising Republican tide because he was from the South? And because he had a good old boy Tenge, that helped him speak to evangelicals on other than religious grounds for the most part. And he won a number of southern states when he ran. It’s going to take perhaps somebody out of that region or who can speak their language to make the broader case. And it has to be a broader case, because if the Republicans are just responding to the Bible Belt crowd, they’re going to get crushed even no matter how well they do in the 2014 midterms. The demographics in the general election are impossible unless they reach out beyond that to the rest of the country, demographically and geographically and ideologically. I don’t know who that’s going to be a little interest. Be interesting to see if they can manage it. 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic that the current climate of divisiveness will be resolved in a peaceful, gradual, incremental way rather than some kind of calamitous way? 

I’m not optimistic, though, because we’re our own worst enemy. We’re united by by a sense of danger from the outside as a democracy where we don’t respond well to dangers from the inside because we are the enemy. 

We are. You know, we’ve method to quote the old cartoonists. You know, we we’ve met the enemy and he is us. 

So I don’t know what it’s going to take. And you can’t rely, even though, as I said, we operate our politics based on individual narratives and presidential candidates and so forth. You don’t want to let that get out of hand either and assume, you know, some grand sort of day or six mocking thing where some overpowering individual force descends from the sky to make everything right. That wouldn’t be a good result either. 

Well, if it all goes to hell, I’ll see what I can do in getting you an Australian passport. And if you don’t move to the South Island of New Zealand, do something different. One from my back pocket. Howard, good to talk to you. Thanks for being a point of inquiry. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.