It should have been Boehner. It’s not hard to imagine that those were the thoughts going through Eric Cantor’s head Wednesday night as he conceded defeat in his Virginia congressional primary to the Tea Party activist David Brat. After all, it was less than three years ago that Cantor was the foremost champion of Tea Party opposition to the fiscal grand bargain President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were trying to hash out during the debt-ceiling fight. And when Cantor, the House majority leader, successfully sabotaged that deal through a series of Machiavellian maneuvers, he appeared poised to capitalize on the Tea Party’s gratitude and take the speakership from the squishy Boehner—if not that very moment, then some time in the not-too-distant future. Even Obama gave voice to that belief. “You know Cantor’s trying to get your job,” the president taunted Boehner during their 2011 debt-ceiling talks.
And yet, Boehner’s job is safe—he easily won his primary last month—and Cantor is now out of his. In a way, Cantor was the victim of his own ambitions. When he was elected to Congress in 2000, he was an Establishment Republican who strongly supported George W. Bush’s agenda. As a member of the House whip team, he helped persuade his fellow Republicans to vote for many of the bills the Tea Party would later decry—most infamously the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug legislation. He was also a staunch and vocal defender of Tom DeLay against corruption charges. But, in 2006, when it looked as if the House GOP leadership was about to lose its majority, Cantor recast himself as a reformer—denouncing the corruption that had consumed his caucus and even swearing off earmarks. Then after Obama’s election in 2008, Cantor, who’d rode his reputation as a reformer to the post of House Minority Whip, began staking out more obstinately conservative positions and became the face of GOP opposition to the new president’s agenda. In 2010, he worked to recruit similarly obstinately conservative Republicans to run for the House, ultimately helping to elect 87 of them. It was those House freshmen whose frustrations and grievances Cantor was channeling during the 2011 debt-ceiling fight—and it was those House freshmen, Cantor and his allies assumed, who’d eventually elevate Cantor to speaker. But when Obama was reelected in 2012, Cantor adjusted yet again. The Tea Party had become a liability and Cantor, while not quite going back to his Establishment roots, began striking more moderate notes—especially on immigration, which Brat used to great effect in his primary campaign. In the end, Cantor rebranded himself out of a job.
During his 14 years in Washington, Cantor reinvented himself so many times that I ultimately lost count somewhere around Cantor 6.0. And that was ultimately the reason for Cantor’s downfall. The serial reinventions left Cantor with few allies and myriad enemies. He was the worst thing a politician could be: someone who inspired great passion, but only negative ones. As we’ve seen this year with Boehner and with Senator Mitch McConnell, Establishment Republicans can withstand Tea Party primary challengers. But Cantor couldn’t because, unlike Boehner and McConnell—who despite their opposition to Obama never entirely cozied up to the Tea Party—he attempted to be something he was not. Cantor was like a golden retriever who tried to run with a pack of coyotes. For a while, he was able to rely on their shared canine ancestry and fit in. But eventually, the coyotes recognized him for the domesticated creature he was. Then they ate him.