If you look at the arc of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s last three years of service in Congress, it begins, in 2011, with an ambitious insider’s game to undermine the Speaker of the House. Cantor was the tea party whisperer; he was their not-so-secret champion; he was the guy—“Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion”—who stood between John Boehner and a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy with the Great Satan.

Unrest within the House Republican conference boiled over in January 2013 with a hapless attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership (including three votes for Cantor). It was at this point, as symbolized by his loud and clearly irritated voice vote for Boehner to retain his position, that Cantor seemed to have recoiled from his game of sabotage. Sure, just days before, Cantor split with Boehner on the vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Yet, from that point until now, Cantor played the role of dutiful deputy. Maybe it was simply another tack: play nice until the next GOP wave, wait for Boehner to step aside, and smoothly ascend to the speakership.

I’d like to think, however, that Cantor was growing tired of the decrepit state of the GOP governing agenda in the wake of a resounding repudiation of Mitt Romney. At a party retreat earlier this year, he recognized the need for the party to appeal beyond the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and substantively address middle-class anxieties.

In his concession speech tonight, you could hear echoes of the embryonic reform-conservative movement:

What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have said we’re about, is, we want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions, so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have.

Add that to Cantor’s gestures toward some kind of constructive movement toward immigration reform, and we’ve got a sad and stunning moment in our politics: a conservative leader who ended, limply, where he should have begun. He rode the tea party tiger and discovered, too late, that he and his party might have profited from more bull sessions with Yuval Levin.

That’s a pity.

I know nothing of Prof. Dave Brat. But I know he is a political novice and, as he’s cheered tonight by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, I can’t help but suspect he will be yet another useless crank in a still-troubled caucus.