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

House majority leader Eric Cantor


Robert Costa

Back in February, Eric Cantor gave a much-publicized speech at the American Enterprise Institute about the need for Republican rebranding, especially among the working families that have drifted toward the Democratic party. His speech, entitled “Making Life Work,” included a broad array of recommendations, from an emphasis on immigration reform to reforming how the federal government funds education. At the time, many Republicans applauded the majority leader’s attempt to improve the House GOP’s battered image.

Ever since, however, House Republicans have been somewhat reluctant to embrace Cantor’s agenda. There is hesitation, mostly in the conservative ranks, about pushing legislation that’s designed to win over moderates and independents. Cantor is still trusted and respected by his fellow conservatives — many consider him to be their ambassador in the leadership — but he has struggled to get widespread support for his family-friendly proposals.

In late April, this backroom unease over “Making Life Work” became a public drama. Cantor was embarrassed when his bill to convert parts of Obamacare into high-risk pools was pulled from the docket due to a lack of conservative enthusiasm. Activist groups, such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, were furious with him for trying to tinker with Obamacare instead of simply calling for repeal. That episode came a month after Cantor rushed to pass the Violence against Women Act, another instance of Cantor’s strategy meeting conservative resistance.

Such stumbles have calcified into a narrative on Capitol Hill that Cantor is moving toward the center and leaving conservatives behind — that he cares too much about polls and not enough about battling President Obama. Of course, Cantor’s allies dispute this, and they say the seven-term Virginia Republican is just trying to get his party back on track after a disastrous election. But that centrist buzz, right or wrong, is floating through the Capitol’s marble halls.

Amid that speculation, I sat down with Cantor on Wednesday at his office, which is decorated with family photos and a glass bowl of M&M’s. Over the course of our conversation he defended his efforts and said, emphatically, that his conservatism hasn’t evolved. He acknowledged, though, that divided government can be difficult, and that he’s doing his best to navigate the terrain, inside and outside the GOP.

ROBERT COSTA: Where does your legislative agenda, which you outlined in your February speech at AEI, stand today?

REPresentative CANTOR: What I hope to deliver this session in Congress is conservative results. Really, I think it’s incumbent on all of us, as conservatives, to posit solutions that actually produce results. It’s not just conservative ideas, it’s how those conservative ideas are put to work to make life better for people. That’s the whole essence of the speech I gave at AEI: How can we win the hearts and minds of the middle?

COSTA: What about the tension within the GOP conference? Some members don’t seem to agree with your strategy.

CANTOR: I don’t think there is a lot of tension about strategy. I think there’s a normal discourse among people who aren’t going to agree on everything. But there is commonality. All of us stress the importance of limiting the size of government. There’s an inverse relationship between the size of government and freedom, and that’s been the bedrock of what supports our conservative philosophy, as well as of the agenda that will hopefully deliver results.

COSTA: But there have been some disagreements. A few weeks ago, your health-care bill got pulled.

CANTOR: That’s still in the works. We’re trying to address that. Overall, there is a strong sense among the American people, and not just among those of us who are conservatives, that Obamacare is the absolute wrong direction for us to go in terms of health care. We see the objections that are beginning to appear; you see the mandates coming out of the health-care agencies here in Washington, about how you aren’t going to be able to keep the health-care you like. And one of the law’s broken promises has already revealed itself: They promised that everyone with insurance wouldn’t be denied, that sick people wouldn’t be left out. As conservatives, we have always felt that high-risk pools are the better way to go to ensure access to coverage.