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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

WASHINGTON — In 1961, John F. Kennedy said: “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

In November of 2010, Eric Cantor said: “The Tea Party are … an organic movement that played a tremendously positive role in this election. I mean, certainly, it produced an outcome beneficial to our party when you’re picking up at least 60-some seats.”

Yes, Republican leaders happily rode the Tea Party tiger when doing so was convenient. Now, Cantor has fallen to the very forces he and his colleagues unleashed and encouraged. After an electoral earthquake that shocked the party’s system, the GOP’s top brass will be scrambling to figure out what lessons they should draw.

Unfortunately, they’ll probably absorb the wrong ones. Rather than taking on the Tea Party and battling for a more moderate and popular form of conservatism, they are likely to cower and accommodate even more.

Because immigration was a central issue used against Cantor by David Brat, the insurgent professor who defeated him by 11 points, the immediate betting is that House leaders will once and for all declare immigration reform dead for this session of Congress. Governing is likely to become even less important, if that’s possible, to House Speaker John Boehner. Just holding a fearful and fractious GOP caucus together will become an even greater preoccupation.

It might usefully occur to some Republicans that Cantor was not their party’s only incumbent challenged by the Tea Party in a primary on Tuesday. In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham overwhelmed six Tea Party challengers, securing 57 percent of the vote and avoiding a runoff.

While it’s true that Graham did what he could to satisfy his party’s ultras — for long stretches, it seemed that not a day went by when he didn’t use the word “Benghazi” — he did not, as Cantor did, twist this way and that on the immigration question. On the contrary, Graham defended his support of immigration reform and his vote for a bipartisan Senate bill.

We’ll never know if Cantor would have done better if he had held steady on the subject. What we do know is that sending out campaign literature bragging about a news story that declared him “the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform” did nothing to placate or persuade those who were out to defeat him.

Republicans who simply want to keep tacking right to maintain their power should also note that if the Tea Party helped mobilize support for them in 2010, it now threatens to reduce the party to a right-wing sect.

The movement is very good at organizing its own, but it is doing little to attract new voters the GOP’s way. If anything, the party’s rightward drift is pushing people out. In December 2010, 33 percent of Americans told Gallup’s pollsters they considered themselves Republicans. Last month only 24 percent did. Although the turnout was up in the Brat-Cantor race, participation has been low in most of this year’s Republican primaries.

Appeasing the Tea Party could create a vicious cycle: the more the party is defined by a hard core, the easier it will be for the most conservative voters to dominate it in primaries involving only the most ardent.

Cantor actually showed signs of understanding this. He gave speeches, including his “Making Life Work” address in February 2013, that at least acknowledged the need to address the practical worries of Americans who are not particularly ideological and don’t wave “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

Politicians, he said, needed to respond to citizens’ “real-life concerns.” These included such basics as “where can you find an affordable home in a good neighborhood to raise your kids?” and “which health care plan can I afford?” and “will the children make it through high school and get into a college of their choice, and if so, can you afford it?”

Yet Cantor may have been most comfortable on safe conservative ground. He tried to start a practical policy conversation but did not take bold next steps to modify the direction the party took in 2010.

What the Tea Party giveth, the Tea Party taketh away. Its energy in 2010 was directed against President Obama and helped Cantor become House majority leader. Now its sights are set on purifying and purging the Republican Party. But purges, as Cantor has learned, are painful. They can also be dangerous to a party’s long-term well-being.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

AFP Photo/Mark Wilson

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Sen. David Perdue

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) pulled out of his final debate against Democrat Jon Ossoff on Thursday —because he'd rather attend a Donald Trump campaign rally.

The Nov. 1 Senate debate was planned months ago, but Perdue's campaign said he could not participate as promised because he has been too busy doing his job.

"Senator Perdue will not be participating in the WSB-TV debate but will instead join the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, for a huge Get-Out-The-Vote rally in Northwest Georgia. For 8 of the last 14 days of this campaign, Senator Perdue went back to Washington to work for much needed COVID relief," his spokesperson John Burke said in a statement, referencing a failed attempt by Senate Republicans to pass Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) "skinny" $500 billion proposal.

"To make up for the lost time, Senator Perdue has over 20 campaign stops planned for the closing days of this race, and he is excited to welcome and join President Trump in Georgia before November 3rd to campaign for both of their re-election efforts," Burke added.

WSB-TV noted on Thursday that it offered Perdue's campaign other time slots to accommodate the Trump rally, but the overture was rebuffed.

Ossoff's campaign blasted Perdue's "cowardly withdrawal," saying in a statement that the move "says it all: David Perdue feels entitled to his office, and he'll do anything to avoid accountability for his blatant corruption and his total failure during this unprecedented health crisis."

The incumbent's decision to break his promise to debate came one day after a video of Jon Ossoff criticizing Perdue's anti-Obamacare record at a Wednesday debate went viral. As of Friday morning, a 72-second clip of Ossoff has been viewed more than 12 million times.

Perdue responded to that attack by making the odd claim that he repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act — which would take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of his constituents — because he believed doing so would cover more people.

"I voted against the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, because it was taking insurance away from millions of Georgians. Today almost 18 percent of Georgians don't have any health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act," he falsely claimed.

This is not the first time Perdue has put Trump ahead of the interests of Georgians. According to FiveThirtyEight, he has voted with Trump about 95 percent of the time, including backing his right-wing Supreme Court nominees, his tax cuts for large corporations and the very wealthy, and his repeated attempts to take money from military families to pay for a massive Southern border wall.

Medical experts and data analyses have suggested Trump's rallies have been super-spreader events for the coronavirus. Trump has refused to adhere to social distancing rules or to require mask usage at the events and the mass gatherings have frequently been immediately followed by case spikes in the communities where he holds them.

One poll this week found that voters across the country said they are less likely to vote for Trump because of his "large, in-person campaign rallies where wearing a mask is not required of attendees."

The race between Ossoff and Perdue is considered a "toss-up" by election experts, and polls show it as virtual tied.

If no candidate gets a majority on Tuesday, the top two finishers will face off in a January runoff.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.