SAN DIEGO – Did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lose his re-election bid in Virginia because he was too soft on immigration, or because he was too hard on immigration?
Well, both, actually.
My inbox confirms it. Within hours of Cantor’s defeat by insurgent GOP challenger Dave Brat, I got messages from at least a dozen advocates who work the immigration debate from across the spectrum. They each had their spin about why Cantor lost, and – no matter what they believed – they seemed determined to use the vote to frighten other members of Congress and keep them in line.
On the right, they argued that Cantor was ousted because he was too accommodating toward those who would legalize the undocumented and too eager to work with President Obama to create a special accommodation for young people brought here years ago by their parents through no fault of their own.
The critics included Roy Beck, head of the immigration reduction group NumbersUSA. Like other nativist organizations started by environmentalist-turned-immigration-restrictionist John Tanton, Beck’s group wants not only to stop illegal immigration but also to shrink legal immigration. So much for the farcical argument that Americans always welcome immigrants as long as they come legally.
The way Beck sees it, by not being tough enough on the immigration issue, Cantor was out of step with voters at home who worry that immigrants are hurting U.S. workers.
“The wage-earning voters of Rep. Cantor’s district apparently felt abandoned by his immigration positions that virtually ignored their anxiety about stagnant wages and high unemployment,” said Beck. “And that projected primary concern for unlawful foreign visitors and employers seeking more foreign workers.”
Meanwhile, on the left, pro-immigration reform folks insisted that Cantor lost because he spent too much time trying to pander to extreme elements of the GOP, opposing the idea of giving the undocumented a path to citizenship and warning President Obama not to use executive power to accomplish reform goals or risk alienating Republicans in Congress.
That view was being pushed by, among others, Eliseo Medina, chair of the Immigrant Justice Campaign for the Service Employee International Union (SEIU). Medina started his career as a community organizer working for the United Farm Workers union and its president, Cesar Chavez. The union had an atrocious practice of turning over undocumented immigrants to U.S. immigration officials for deportation because – not unlike groups such as NumbersUSA – they feared that these immigrants were competing with union workers.
Last year, Medina and other activists staged a hunger strike in Washington to highlight the need for immigration reform. At one point, the group – whose effort was dubbed the “Fast for Families” – smiled and posed for pictures with Obama, whose administration has divided hundreds of thousands of immigrant families with aggressive deportation policies.
From Medina’s point of view, Cantor lost his seat because he stopped looking for solutions to the immigration issue, and settled for simply pandering to nativist elements of the GOP.
“Here’s a primary result that makes it absolutely plain,” said Medina, “Primaries are won when you don’t play politics with your constituents and run on common-sense support for immigration reform. Mr. Cantor will lament the day he decided to heed the fears and absurdities of extremists and radio personalities.”
All this is clear as mud, right? So which of these camps has Cantor pegged correctly?
Well, both, actually.
In trying to be all things to all people and taking multiple positions on the immigration issue, Cantor wound up providing critics on both the right and left with the evidence to make their case against him. One minute, Cantor’s campaign is sending out offensive mailers claiming that he is fighting a plan by Obama to give amnesty to “illegal aliens”; the next, Cantor is saying in a local television interview in Virginia that he wants to work with Obama to provide legal status to young undocumented immigrants.
And, in the process, instead of pleasing everyone, Cantor wound up alienating just about everyone.
The lesson: In choosing their elected officials, voters still value those sorts of quaint personal qualities that often seem in short supply in politics. Even in this age of cynicism, things like character, consistency and authenticity have not gone out of style. In fact, ironically, the more cynical we become, the more we hunger for them.