A political shockwave went through Washington last week as a little-known college economics professor took down the second most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Out-funded, out-staffed and out-gunned in nearly every way, David Brat’s victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia primary will be talked about for years to come.
There’s a long history of Republicans being “primaried from the right.” It happens for a host of reasons: too disconnected with the district, too moderate, too ambitious or simply, too “Washington.” But one cannot discount that issues matter, as immigration reform did for Cantor.
GOP primary upsets are not new. In my early days in Washington I served on the staff of Senate Minority Whip Tom Kuchel. Like Cantor, Kuchel held a high post, spent a great deal of time in Washington and didn’t have the time to campaign. The growing seeds of conservatism during the Goldwater era led to a primary challenge and surprise defeat for Kuchel.
Unexpected defeats of icons are not limited to primaries. Years later, I was working with former House Ways & Means Chairman Al Ullman, who represented the state of Oregon. Ullman’s outspoken advocacy for a value added tax was a triggering event that led to his defeat during the Reagan landslide. Of course, the fact that his home address was a P.O. Box didn’t help matters. Conversely, there is another Oregonian today named Ron Wyden who understands the importance of retail politics. A few years ago I spent some time with him in Oregon and I discovered that no constituent and no event was too insignificant for his attention. He stays connected with his district, shakes every hand he can and has survived two decades in office. Today this Democrat serves as the Senate Finance Chairman and could write the next chapter in tax policy.
Historically, as Ullman discovered, the tax issue has been a ticking time bomb for many elected officials dating back to the original Tea Party in 1773. It’s a potent issue that Middle America understands because it hits its wallet directly. Blood pressures rise when Wall Street or special interests get tax breaks or when a neighbor gets a bailout for making bad mortgage decisions.
Sooner rather than later elected officials must revisit tax reform again. If they want to avoid the fate of Cantor and his predecessors, they should be cautious and avoid re-carving the existing pie for winners and losers. Rather, they should think about their constituents that work hard and save, but continually get punished by a broken and archaic income tax system.
Retiring Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp deserves credit for trying to jumpstart a debate, but his tax reform package didn’t get out of the starting blocks namely because he only shuffled the deck chairs aboard a sinking ship–the income tax. How about trying something new? Not an add-on VAT, but turning the income tax into a consumption tax in which we reward, rather than punish, middle class Americans for saving—whether for retirement, education, or a rainy day. Revive Ben Franklin’s “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
Will it work? Time will tell but we know for sure that voters don’t like what we have now and that resentment can only deepen. Lawmakers should remember this as they work to avoid becoming the next Cantor.
They should also recall Tip O’Neill’s famous phrase, “All politics is local.”