Politics & Policy

Cantor’s Conservatism

The House majority leader discusses the successes and setbacks of GOP rebranding.

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.

COSTA: So you’ll bring up your bill again?

CANTOR: I’m in conversations with Joe Pitts, Fred Upton, and others on the committee. It’d be high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions. We don’t support the mandates that Obamacare is going to implement, which will lead to the largest entitlement that the country will ever see.

COSTA: What’s your response to conservatives within the conference who say that any legislation that isn’t a full repeal of the law isn’t worth pursuing?

CANTOR: That’s an ongoing debate. I believe that the onslaught of Obamacare is a real threat to the fiscal health of the country and to the kind of health care we receive. I believe we ought to fight to repeal Obamacare at every turn. I think it’s fair to say that the president doesn’t embrace repeal. We need to demonstrate that forcing people into what Washington wants is a bad route, in terms of health-care freedom.

COSTA: Conservatives are wondering if you’re moving too far toward the middle. Are you becoming more centrist?

CANTOR: No. Look at what’s on the floor today. What’s not conservative about saying you want to remove government impediments to increase freedom? That’s what the Working Families Flexibility Act does. Martha Roby [an Alabama Republican] has done a great job as a working mother. Parents need to be flexible in the time that they work. It is about freedom, and it’s a classic example of how conservative values can help produce a better life for these families. No matter what kind of job they have, working parents would probably agree that they need more time. That’s what this bill does, by getting the government out of the way.

COSTA: Then why is the conference resistant?

CANTOR: I don’t hear that. I think the conference is behind the notion that less government means more freedom, that conservative philosophy produces better results. Educational reform is another piece of what we’re working on — allowing for parents to choose where those dollars are spent will result in much better outcomes. Obviously, I’m very focused on the Richmond area and my constituency and how we can improve there. You can look at special-needs parents, in particular, and they would absolutely benefit from having more control over their dollars, because they don’t have children who fit into the one-size-fits-all educational bureaucracy.

COSTA: What about immigration?

CANTOR: I’ve always looked at the immigration issue as something that you have to balance. All of us know that this country is a country of immigrants. Not everyone was able to come here by choice, so America didn’t always get it right, but we continue to strive to make sure there is opportunity for all. That’s what we’re about. The fact that the country is such an attraction is an important point to remember. But we are a country of laws, we have a transparent judiciary to enforce those laws, and, frankly, you can’t treat those abiding by the law, acting legally, in the same way you treat those who came here illegally. So there’s this balance. All the other concerns that enter the debate are being discussed in both chambers right now.

I’m hoping that we can come together on areas where we agree. We all accept the notion that we can benefit from the best and the brightest coming here. We believe in supporting the innovative culture we have here through a STEM visa revision. The visa laws are antiquated and need to be fixed. Everyone also believes that we ought to be doing everything we can to secure the border.

At the same time, the part of the issue regarding children is something we can all rally around. Kids were brought here through no fault of their own, or brought here unbeknownst to them and never lived anywhere else. I think the compassion in all of us says those kids deserve a chance to be Americans. I think we can all come together one these areas of the immigration issue, if we can’t do a larger bill.

COSTA: So you’re open to a comprehensive bill?

CANTOR: We’re watching to see how it plays out. The Senate has taken that route. [House judiciary committee chairman] Bob Goodlatte is going to be reviewing and considering individual pieces of the package, and we are looking to his leadership on that committee as we go forward.

COSTA: The buzz is that if the Gang of Eight’s plan gets 70 or 80 votes in the Senate, you are going to be under a lot of pressure to bring it to the House floor.

CANTOR: Come on. This town is full of pressure, both good and bad. The way to go about it is to do what Chairman Goodlatte is doing. It is a very deliberative approach, and that’s what we should be doing.


COSTA: What is your position on a path to legalization?

CANTOR: Again, I really think that we need to make sure that the committee does its work at the same time that the Gang of Eight is doing its work.

COSTA: Are you involved in the behind-the-scenes talks?

CANTOR: I’m in touch. I’m very much in touch with what’s going on.

COSTA: Beyond the Roby bill, immigration, and education, how else are you going to push for the “Making Life Work” project during the rest of this year? Is tax reform a part of your plan to appeal to working families?

CANTOR: Tax reform is squarely in the lane of what I think is needed to make life work for people. You look at working families that just completed the tax season, and they spent an inordinate amount of time and money to ensure compliance with the very complicated tax code. We all could personally benefit from a simpler code, and certainly from a fairness standpoint, by getting Washington out of the business of choosing whom it favors and who it doesn’t — getting all the corporate cronyism out of the code. It would allow the efficient flow of capital, which will allow us to grow. This is certainly a macro-competitiveness issue, but it is also one that speaks to human capital. If we want our economy to grow, we ought to empower and create the conditions for families to be all-in in their careers. They’ve got to be able to manage their households in a better way, and that’s what this agenda is trying to do. It’s trying to create the conditions for that to happen.

COSTA: Looking back, I did an interview with you in 2011, and the headline was “Obama’s Nemesis.” That reputation also came through in Bob Woodward’s book, The Price of Politics. You have long been seen as the White House’s antagonist.

CANTOR: I can’t put words in their mouth, but if you asked the White House now, they’d probably say the same thing about me. I’ve never wavered in my commitment to make sure that this town operates under the notion that it’s spending other people’s money. We need to always remember that because the taxpayers earned that money. And that’s why I so strongly oppose higher taxes. I think there’s a problem to be addressed here, because, unfortunately, this administration has not been able to bring itself to agree on a fix on the fiscal front. But we’re going to continue to try, all in the name of trying to create the conditions for economic growth, so families can see more opportunity.

COSTA: Do you see all of your work this year as a rebranding or marketing project, or is it a legislative project?

CANTOR: I think there’s a lot of ways that we can demonstrate that we’re putting conservative ideas to work. And it’s not just about ideas, it’s about ideas that produce results. That’s what this agenda is about. It is about making the case to the voters in the middle, to the people out there who are struggling, that conservative leadership is what is going to provide a brighter future.

COSTA: What has it been like at conference meetings trying to push these different bills? There’s been talk that you haven’t been able to get the votes for some of them.

CANTOR: There are things that people are going to have differences on, but I don’t think we differ on the fundamental philosophy that is at the core of these bills. With the Skills Act, for instance, the sponsor worked very hard to say, “It’s a conservative notion.” We want to make sure that we are getting rid of the unnecessary government efforts at workforce training. We realize that there are a lot of unemployed people out there right now, and the priority should be job creation. So, if we’ve got a problem, and the problem is that there are industries looking for skilled people, we can do something by getting government out of doing things that don’t make sense, and allowing the programs to help those who need the help.

COSTA: Have you reached out to the conservative groups that have opposed you on these initiatives?

CANTOR: There’s a constant dialogue with conservatives — with the Heritage Action folks and the Club for Growth. I was at Heritage yesterday, presenting a Maggie Thatcher resolution, and I was a student of Heritage policy papers before I got to Washington, and I continue to be. I think they maintain a position as a venerable think tank on the conservative side. Ed Feulner established Heritage’s tradition, and I know that Jim DeMint is going to continue that tradition.

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.


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