Cantor’s Conservatism
The House majority leader discusses the successes and setbacks of GOP rebranding.

House majority leader Eric Cantor


Robert Costa

COSTA: Speaking of tense relations, House Republicans don’t have much of a relationship with the president. He goes golfing with GOP senators, he hosts Democrats for dinner, but he doesn’t seem to socialize with your conference.

CANTOR: Well, I just had drinks with [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough the other night. We talked about how we could work together and improve things. The one thing I’ve always said — and I’ve said it to Rahm [Emanuel] and Jack Lew — is that this president has squandered an opportunity to use the office to do some good and actually get some things done. Compare that with the personal relationships that existed during my time in the Virginia state legislature, for example, where it was all about personal relationships between the executive and legislative branch. It just doesn’t exist here. Either the president doesn’t like to engage with people, or it’s somehow beneath him to do so. I don’t know, and I told Denis that the president could benefit himself and the country a lot by developing those relationships and understanding where conservatives are, instead of just thinking that he knows where we are. But that has not been the case over the last four years of his tenure.

COSTA: But maybe the president’s reservations are understandable, since the House GOP doesn’t want to make deals and only wants to work within regular order.

CANTOR: It shouldn’t be about deal making. You saw the Bush White House; they were up here all the time, participating in the legislative process in regular order. So I’m sort of at a loss; I’m beyond making that suggestion to the White House, because if they don’t engage, if they don’t become a part of trying to achieve a result for the American people, then they won’t have anything to look back on as an accomplishment.

COSTA: What about the debt limit? How are you going to handle that? How are you going to avoid being tagged as the party that’s using brinksmanship on the issue?

CANTOR: We’ve got a bill that’s coming up today that begins to address where the conference is on the debt ceiling. It came out of the agreement we made as a group at our retreat. We feel strongly that we’re going to keep driving toward addressing the spending problem. The other piece of the issue is about growth. The White House has stood in the way on straightforward issues like the Keystone pipeline. Why are we avoiding the job creation that would occur from that one decision they could make? We all know any sort of deficit solution has to be accompanied by economic growth, so getting the fiscal situation in order is part of that, but what else can we do to unleash economic freedom in the private sector? That’s what we’re going to ask. How are we helping working families, investors, entrepreneurs, and others to create value?

COSTA: Is the leadership on the same page?

CANTOR: I think so. I think after the experience we saw two years ago, we are all very dedicated to fixing the unfunded liabilities of entitlements. Most economists would say that this is the underlying cause of the escalating debt, and we’re just digging the hole deeper. And we want to stress that necessity, and figure out how to grow this economy.

COSTA: A final question about your conservatism. What have people missed about what you believe?

CANTOR: I have always been one who very much believes that we should not jump at the temptation for government to do something. And the Constitution is there to limit the powers of government, to make sure the default is always to the people who pay for the government and elect the government. We should be ever mindful of that, and we should operate by this notion every day. Are we working to expand freedom every day while reducing the size of government? And regardless of how it plays out, we defer on the side of the individual.

— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.