Eric Cantor, Anomaly

Jewish Republicanism never amounted to much. But can anyone hold the Koch and Adelson wings of the party together now?

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

There has been a fair amount written in the past 24 hours about Eric Cantor and the Jews, for whom this is — necessarily, as the saying goes — either good or bad.

The basic conclusion from Politico’s Alex Burns on my old beat: “Oy Vey.” The president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a major fundraising operation, tweeted inconsolably:

But Brooks cares more about Eric Cantor than any other person who isn’t related to the man, I think, and there is both less and more to this story than meets the eye.

Cantor has been an interesting anomaly: a Jewish Republican; and, perhaps more interesting, a guy who could vibe with the neocons and raise money from their candidates’ biggest patron, Sheldon Adelson; and someone who seemed to have credibility with the uncompromising conservative movement and its main backers, the Koch brothers.

In the end, though, neither group appears quite to have seen him as their guy, and there are fewer tears being shed than you might expect. That may explain some of the coverage that has focused on Jewish politics and on the godforsaken corner of that universe that is Jewish Republicanism. The broader Jewish community questions are as minor as they get: a point of ethnic pride in the first Jew in a House leadership job nobody outside Washington has ever heard of, and having a guy willing to carry obscure and worthy legislation around tax policy for Holocaust survivors. Cantor’s work as an ally of hawkish supporters of Israel is also fairly easily replaced, though he was an important connection between the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC and conservative House freshmen. His role in bringing a few new Jewish donors to the GOP is likewise real but not vastly important. And in general, the idea that Republicans needed much rallying to oppose Barack Obama’s foreign policy is silly.

“The issues that he was involved vis a vis the pro-Israel community were bigger than him — they were about Obama,” said former Bush and Romney aide Dan Senor, who is close to Adelson and other foreign policy hawks.

Other blips make even less sense. Some on the right, for instance, are mourning the end of the enduring fantasy of a mass Jewish migration to the Republican Party, which longtime activists now dismiss as unrealistic: “We could have enough Republican Jews in Congress for a dozen minyans and the Democrats would still get 70% of the Jewish vote,” said Emergency Committee for Israel Executive Director Noah Pollak.

And then there’s the baseless idea that Cantor was defeated by an ethnic whisper campaign.

“Some of the Jews who happened to be friends with Cantor should stop whining about his loss and inventing totally unfounded charges of anti-Semitism,” the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, a leading figure in among hawkish pro-Israel community, said in an email.

The real questions are both more remote and, for neoconservatives and other pro-Israel Republicans, more worrisome.


The fear that Cantor’s election exposes among Republicans who back Israel, and back the kind of hawkish foreign policy line associated with George W. Bush, is long term. They fear that we are seeing the birth of a new Republican Party whose intellectual roots are utterly different from the old one — one whose premier 20th-century villain is Franklin Roosevelt — and whose logic will ultimately turn it against any real American role in the world.

And so the frisson you’re seeing among leaders of the organized American Jewish community and other staunch supporters of Israel doesn’t actually have much to do with Cantor. It actually has, in a sense, more to do with Dave Brat, the obscure Randian (in both senses) college professor who said Wednesday that he’d need more sleep before he could answer a straightforward question about arming the rebels in Syria.

“I don’t think this guy has even thought about foreign policy, which should be very troubling,” said Michael Fragin, a veteran New York Jewish Republican activist.

Fragin noted that pro-Israel activists spend much more of their time these days worrying about the left than about the right. The end of any real peace process has produced a surprisingly resilient movement to boycott or otherwise pressure the Jewish state around Palestinian rights, and Israel supporters were surprised recently to see an anti-boycott measure stall out in the typically friendly New York State Assembly.

Over on the right, meanwhile, the libertarians have, lately, been saying mostly the right things. Even Rand Paul is on a quest to figure out exactly where the line is on foreign policy that will allow him to project a basic opposition to most spending on arms and diplomacy alike without picking distracting fights with the neocons. His solution, lately, has been to attack U.S. aid to the Palestinians and to say that he only wants to cut aid to Israel after he’s cut all the rest. That has fallen short of producing detente, but he’s trying.

But the group of hawkish conservatives loosely referred to as neoconservatives (who overlap, but aren’t coextensive with, organized Jewish Republicans and the hawkish pro-Israel movement) remain deeply uncomfortable with Paul, who once, apropos of nothing, asked Kristol random and detailed questions about the Mossad. And they are nervous about the rise of a generation of Republicans who are, at worst, actively hostile to the idea of making support for Israel a policy priority; and at best, like Brat, just haven’t given the matter much thought. For now, the rising Republican stars who care about foreign policy, like Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, are national security hawks. But the libertarians are so unformed that the landscape could change fast.

“They don’t know how to talk about it, they don’t really care about it, and at any moment you could have a real leader from the isolationist wing and they could all tip over that way,” fretted a top neocon, adding hopefully: “They’re just as likely to tip over our way if the wind is blowing that direction.”

Eric Cantor has been an anomaly as a Jewish Republican. But he’s also anomalous for another reason: He’s a movement “liberty” conservative from a deep red Southern district who is also a hawkish foreign policy neocon — a “freedom” conservative as the language of these quietly dueling movements has it. He’s a man who could be beloved by the anti-government Koch brothers, who helped throttle the federal government through the sequester; and by the neoconservative wing and their main backer, Sheldon Adelson, who hated the cuts to defense spending and believe in a muscular foreign policy.

Those wings of the party differ deeply, but generally avoid conflict by staying in their lanes. Neocons don’t meddle in domestic policy despite their relative sympathy for some social programs; and libertarians restrain themselves to muttering under their breath about foreign aid. Cantor was a marker to members of both clubs that the circle could be squared.

But now the movement the Kochs and their ideological allies helped fuel has devoured one of its favorite sons, in part over an issue — immigration — on which both Koch and Adelson take far more liberal views than Cantor ever did in public. But the new strain of Republicanism that libertarian donors helped create may no longer be under their control, and it just devoured one of the few men able to lead what seemed to be emerging as the new Republican ideological coalition toward power, and away from civil war.

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