The Magazine

Our ‘Dead Broke’ Leaders

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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In the largest turnout in a congressional primary in the history of Virginia politics, the voters of the Commonwealth’s 7th Congressional District last Tuesday decisively chose not to renominate their seven-term representative, now serving as House majority leader, who had massively outspent his little-known challenger.

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The reaction in our nation’s capital, 90 miles away? Pretend it didn’t happen. Or if you had to acknowledge it happened, pretend it was of no significance. Or if you had to acknowledge it was of some significance, pretend it was merely a product of unique and local circumstances. Above all: Don’t draw any meaningful conclusions from what happened. And truly above all: Don’t change your behavior in any important way.

So the night after Eric Cantor’s defeat, the House Republican whip, the amiable Kevin McCarthy—the apparent frontrunner to succeed Cantor as leader because intelligent conservatives don’t want to compete for the privilege of serving as No. 2 to the amiable speaker, John Boehner—was telling a group of lobbyists pulled together by the Chamber of Commerce in a private room in a D.C. steakhouse: Don’t worry, nothing much will change, it will be business as usual in the House of Representatives.

But change was in the air. McCarthy spoke at the Capital Grille. Team Cantor had run up a campaign tab of $168,637—more than the total campaign spending of his challenger Dave Brat—at competing steakhouses Bobby Van’s and BLT Steak, a mile away. Who says politicians aren’t responsive to voters?

Over in the other party, its apparently prohibitive presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton told Diane Sawyer she and her husband Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House in 2001. Presumably her $8 million book advance, already signed and sealed, and her husband’s $15 million advance, shortly to come, weren’t enough as the Clintons “struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.” Undoubtedly not. Presumably after a cavalcade of $200,000 speeches and with a net worth of about $200 million, it’s gotten somewhat easier, a bit less burdensome, for the Queen of the Democrats.

Meanwhile, in real America, veterans are denied care. Other Americans are forced to buy insurance they don’t want at costs they can’t afford while their taxes bail out insurance companies in league with the Obama administration. Meanwhile, in the real world, Americans are abandoned when under attack by terrorists in Benghazi, and terrorists are released from Guantánamo in return for an American who abandoned his fellow soldiers. 

And now the Obama administration stands and watches as Iraq, abandoned after a noble if difficult effort on the part of American soldiers and Marines sent to Iraq with the blessing not just of George W. Bush and John McCain but of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, falls apart under the assault of an al Qaeda army that turns out not to be “on the run.” Or at least not “on the run” in the way President Obama meant. Nor does he mean to do anything about the slaughter in Syria and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice. If you seek Obama’s memorial, look around you.

Of course, the task of the opposition party isn’t to contemplate memorials but to change the course of the nation. The good news for Republicans is that while their D.C. leadership, such as it is, remains relatively clueless, there’s an unusual number of good Senate and House candidates who, if elected this November, might actually shake things up. Even more important than 2014 is 2016. Republicans, for a change, aren’t saddled with the prospect of an out-of-touch insider as their presidential nominee. (Is it conceivable that no populist Democrat will see Hillary Clinton’s glaring weaknesses and take her on?) The populist mantle, the reformist mantle, the Main Street and Middle America mantles, are there for the Republican taking.

The voters of the 7th District in Virginia have rendered, on behalf of their fellow Americans, a verdict of no confidence in the Republican establishment. This November, voters across America will render, we’re increasingly confident, a verdict of no confidence in the Democratic establishment. One could say that the establishments of both parties are “dead broke.”

When Arthur Greenwood rose to speak in the House of Commons on September 2, 1939, responding to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on behalf of the opposition Labour party, the redoubtable Leo Amery called out from the Conservative back benches: “Speak for England!” Will a Republican presidential candidate, in this moment of confusion and crisis, rise to speak for America?

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