WASHINGTON — Eric Cantor, announcing to his House Republican colleagues Wednesday afternoon that he will resign as majority leader, recalled some wisdom given him recently by a Holocaust survivor: “Suffering is a part of life. Misery is a choice.”
It was typical of Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, to wear his faith on his sleeve as he grappled with his unimaginable loss in Tuesday’s primary. Minutes after his closed-door remarks to colleagues, the Virginian greeted reporters with thoughts about how, “in the Jewish faith, you know, I grew up, went to Hebrew school, read a lot in the Old Testament, and you learn a lot about individual setbacks.”
Cantor, who had been on course to be the first Jewish speaker of the House, was an important symbol in a party dominated by evangelical Christians. The ouster of the only non-Christian Republican in Congress by a primary challenger running as an immigration hard-liner is a crucial moment for the GOP because it risks cementing the party’s demographic troubles.
Yet House Republicans dispatched Cantor on Wednesday with unseemly haste. In the Jewish tradition, burial generally occurs within a day of death. Cantor’s GOP colleagues took that further, dumping him instantaneously — and unceremoniously — after his unexpected political demise.
Without a decent interval, Republicans hoping to secure a place in the leadership because of Cantor’s misfortune already were calling supporters and putting out feelers Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas said he was “prayerfully” contemplating running for GOP leadership and was “humbled by the many people who have approached me” about doing so. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said she was “assessing” her options. Reps. Pete Sessions of Texas, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Steve Scalise of Louisiana talked up their candidacies. Those who are not running beat the drums for personal or regional favorites.
Sessions, asked about Cantor’s loss, blamed the victim for not asking for help from his colleagues. “We were all listening to Eric, and he said he was fine,” Sessions told reporters. “You tend to trust what you’re hearing. These are kinds of things that must not be left to guess.”
At 1 p.m. Wednesday, The Washington Post broke the story that the beleaguered leader had agreed to step down as majority leader at the end of July. (A snap election for his successor will be next week.) Fifteen minutes later, would-be candidates were on the House floor, buttonholing colleagues.
Roskam sat down with Mike Rogers of Michigan, then cornered Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania. Kevin McCarthy of California, pen and pad in hand, sidled up to Chris Smith of New Jersey, then whispered with Tom Marino of Pennsylvania and conferred with Dana Rohrabacher of California. McMorris Rodgers, in the well, had pulled aside Kristi Noem of South Dakota, then Diane Black of Tennessee.
Four rows behind them, Hensarling was conferring with Tom Price of Geogia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. An aisle over, Scalise had sat down with Steve Womack of Arkansas.
This went on for more than 20 minutes, and back slaps, smiles and laughs punctuated the conversations.
It was a bit distasteful that Republicans had come to replace their leader, not to praise him. More troubling still was that Cantor’s colleagues didn’t even pause to contemplate the significance of Cantor’s fall before pursuing their ambitions.
A grim-faced Cantor, arriving at the Capitol after his trip from the Richmond suburbs, kept out of sight Wednesday until late afternoon in the suite of offices near the Rotunda he shares with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Just before noon, Boehner emerged, but only to begin the day’s session on the House floor. There, he listened to the opening prayer from a guest chaplain, a rabbi who asked God to inspire “the many races, colors and ancestries that make up our blessed country.”
Cantor’s ancestry probably wasn’t an asset Tuesday among some of the voters who had been added to his district because of Republican-led gerrymandering. His (modest) support for immigration reform also hurt him in the low-turnout primary. Cantor’s biggest problem, though, may have been his national ambition: He spent too much time on the road collecting chits for an eventual bid for speaker.
If Cantor’s unbridled ambition was what brought him down, his colleagues weren’t getting the message. They saw his fall only as a means to another’s rise.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.