Magazine | August 15, 2011, Issue

Obama’s Nemesis

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
A visit with Rep. Eric Cantor

Washington, D.C. — Across the rotunda, Sen. Harry Reid, a 71-year-old Democrat, is grumbling about Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. The previous evening, Cantor, a boyish Virginia Republican, flustered President Obama during debt-limit negotiations at the White House. Reid repays this horror with a tongue-lashing, calling Cantor “childish” from the floor.

Cantor, relaxing in his Capitol office, shrugs when he hears about Reid’s remark. Days before, he reminds me, Reid had taken him aside and thanked him for his blunt answers during the high-stakes talks. Now, in the late-July heat, Reid has apparently forgotten, tagging Cantor as the Beltway’s bête noire.

For Democrats, casting Cantor as this decade’s Newt Gingrich — a right-wing threat to reasonableness — became a favorite pastime in the midst of the debt-ceiling debate. President Obama, more than most, has found Cantor irritating. Unlike House Speaker John Boehner, who has played a round of golf with Obama, Cantor has not developed a personal relationship with the president, nor is he interested in one. Instead, from the stimulus to the debt ceiling, Cantor has eagerly opposed the Obama agenda at every turn.

But that opposition, Cantor says with a hint of weariness, entails more than making the case for GOP policies. It also involves dealing with a president who is averse to rigorous debate. As the impasse between senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers stretched into the evening, Obama, he says, became agitated, refusing to haggle. “Would Ronald Reagan be sitting here?” the president reportedly huffed before storming out of the room. “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” he famously added at the door.

Cantor lightly chuckles as he details the meeting. The president references the Gipper as he makes a dramatic exit? It was like a poorly written scene from The West Wing. The best politicians, Cantor says, know that policy battles are supposed to be “robust” and take care not to interpret sharp words as slights.

These days, tangling with Obama has become an unofficial part of Cantor’s job. The 48-year-old congressman is smooth, energetic, and unabashedly partisan, which makes him a favorite of tea-party newcomers. In the Republican hierarchy, Boehner may reign, but it is Cantor, along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the GOP whip, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman, who forms the youthful nucleus of the conference.

Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to Pres. George W. Bush, says it is no surprise that Cantor has emerged as Obama’s number-one whipping boy. “The White House views Cantor as a rising star, so in the Chicago style of politics, they are making things uncomfortable for him,” he says. “They put him in the direct crosshairs of the national media — trying to shock him into submission, rough him up — in order to send a message.”

Since coming to Congress a decade ago, Cantor has been one of the party’s most ambitious warriors. He was appointed to a leadership post, chief deputy whip, in 2002, after less than one full term. In April, Boehner tapped him to represent House Republicans at the debt-reduction discussions led by Vice President Biden. He left the bipartisan group in late June, after telling Biden that he would not agree to include any tax hikes as part of a deal.

Once those talks collapsed, and with the August debt-ceiling deadline looming, Obama began to huddle with Capitol Hill leaders. Cantor entered the second phase of negotiations with reservations. He trusted Biden, but he was unsure of what Obama was attempting to do. Cantor repeatedly told the White House that any deal with House Republicans would need to be framed around trillions of dollars in cuts to the federal budget and respect the GOP’s stiff aversion to revenue increases.

#page#Obama paid little attention to Cantor’s warning. He courted Boehner, who spent the early summer privately discussing a potential “grand bargain” with the president. That never panned out. But as July wore on, Obama began to pin the blame for the breakdown on Cantor, whispering to reporters and Democrats that the Virginian was the cause, the one who represented the worst of the tea-party impulse of the Republican caucus. The whisper soon became a chorus. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat of New York, held a press conference and said Cantor was “standing in the way, and it is a shame.”

Cantor was disappointed, but undaunted. Behind the wire-rimmed glasses, dark suit, and skinny frame is a practiced political pro. He has spent nearly his entire life in politics, balancing a willingness to fight with a conservative temperament. As one GOP aide puts it, “Cantor knows how to throw bombs, but he never lets himself look like a bomb-thrower.” Growing up in Richmond, the son of strict Jewish parents, Cantor was attracted to the rough-and-tumble world of local politics; but he was taught early that politics was more than a sideshow, that it was a serious civic pursuit.

Cantor’s father, Eddie, managed a commercial-real-estate company and eventually built a small fortune. “My father was a consummate entrepreneur,” Cantor says. “He was always a Republican, too. He believed in economic freedom.” Immigrant grit drove the family. Cantor’s grandfather had died when his father was two years old, soon after arriving in America from Russia, leaving Cantor’s grandmother, Frances, with two children and little money. She opened a small grocery store and raised her children above it, prodding them to read and study.

By age 15, Eddie Cantor had graduated from high school. He worked his way through Virginia Tech, then attended the University of Richmond School of Law. At age 21, he passed the bar exam — a year before he was legally allowed to practice. He and his wife, Mary Lee, instilled a flinty, education-and-hard-work-are-everything resolve in Eric and his brothers as they grew up. The congressman notes that, though his father is ill, his mother attends his campaign events to this day, urging him to keep improving his performance.

Of his father, Cantor says, “He was always reading, working, paying attention, and thinking.” Eddie Cantor also was never afraid to take bold positions, even if the majority of the community thought it brash or unseemly to do so. When fellow Richmond Jews were backing Democrats, Cantor’s father was organizing for Ronald Reagan and raising money for ragtag slates of local Republicans.

Eric Cantor frequently assisted his father in such efforts, stuffing envelopes and hammering campaign signs into the dirt. “I was around the nitty-gritty of county-supervisor races,” he says. “I was out at polls in the dark when they opened, year after year.” Yet his high-school years were about more than politicking: Cantor attended the Collegiate School, a private academy in Richmond, where he was one of the few Jewish students.

In local politics and at Collegiate, Cantor learned how to navigate worlds in which he was in the minority, he says. As majority leader, Cantor is known to handle matters of rank and rancor deftly, much as he once handled matters of religion as a student. During chapel services, Cantor would bow his head with his classmates, but he would pray only at synagogue or at Hebrew school, which he attended three times a week. By age 18, Cantor had become a master at blending in to his surroundings.

#page#Not much has changed. “He keeps his own counsel,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia and longtime Cantor observer. “He doesn’t easily share. He is fairly quiet by nature, precise and rarely bombastic. He is very bright — you can tell he gets the whole picture — but he has always been reserved.” As one Republican staffer says, “he’ll drink a glass of wine with you,” but even then, don’t expect him to reveal much. He’ll likely bring a policy brief with the bottle.

Cantor looks back on his time at Collegiate fondly, but for college, he wanted something different. He eschewed the preppy liberal-arts schools that many of his friends chose, enrolled at George Washington University in downtown Washington, D.C., and signed up for political science. During his first semester, near the end of Reagan’s first year in office, he began trekking to Capitol Hill, itching to be a part of the action. To no one’s surprise, he soon found it, through Rep. Tom Bliley, a Richmond Republican and friend of the family who had been elected to Congress the previous year.

Cantor began to intern for Bliley that winter, filing papers and taking calls. “I came up here on a pretty regular basis,” he says. Bliley quickly became Cantor’s political mentor. He took a liking to Cantor’s soft-spoken manner and offered the undergraduate a spot as his driver during the summer of 1982, when he would be campaigning for reelection. Cantor signed on and became an influential campaign aide at age 19, helping the pipe-smoking Catholic congressman hustle to events. “I really got to see firsthand the workings of grassroots politics,” Cantor says. “I saw the real nuts and bolts of how you run a campaign.”

Following the election, Bliley urged Cantor to stay involved. But the young Republican was not ready to run for office. During his junior year, Cantor studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. “It was awesome,” he says. “You major in politics there, not in political science.” To him, that sounded grand. During one break, he traveled to the Soviet Union. “[Konstantin] Chernenko was in power. Just to get back to London was a big breather,” he laughs.

A law degree was next. In August 1985, Cantor headed to Williamsburg, Va., where he enrolled at William and Mary Law School. He stayed close to Bliley and remained active in politics when he was home. But at the time, Cantor was set on joining the family business once he finished his education. His father advised him to go to Columbia University to get a master’s degree in real-estate development so that he could jump right in.

It was in the Big Apple that Cantor met Diana Fine, a young, socially liberal investment banker from a prominent Miami Beach family with numerous ties to Florida Democrats. She lived in Greenwich Village, a world away from his dingy Upper West Side haunts, and he fell in love soon after meeting her on a blind date. She was smart, pretty, and on the fast track at Goldman Sachs to boot. They married in 1989, moved to Richmond, and had their first child, Evan, in 1990.

For the next couple of years, Cantor worked alongside his father, mapping out growth strategies and building the company. But he caught the political bug. When he heard that a state-house seat would be opening in 1991, after Virginia’s political map had been redrawn, he took six months away from work and began to plot his campaign. He was 27 years old. Two older local Republicans were also eyeing the seat, but Cantor used his parents’ connections and years of sweat equity to convince GOP voters.

#page#Not everyone embraced Cantor, who, some scoffed, was another slick lawyer with jet-black hair. The nomination was handled caucus-style, with hundreds of Republicans assembling to pick candidates in the fall of 1991, so Cantor took care to make a strong impression on the trail. The night of the caucus, Cantor, along with his wife and parents, entered the fray optimistically. “It was held in a steamy high-school gymnasium,” Cantor says. “We walked through the door, went through the process, and ultimately had 800 people come out for us on this hot night, right as school was getting back.”

Cantor coasted to victory that November and began a nine-year stint in the legislature. He also kept helping his father with the family business, which had begun to supervise large projects, from shopping malls to business parks. “Remember, Virginia’s legislature follows the Jeffersonian model, so I felt I could still have a career and do this,” Cantor says. Politics also did not seem too far removed from what he was doing in real estate. “I have always had a real affinity for urban planning,” he says. “Land planning is what makes communities work; it’s what drives people in terms of careers, their employment base, shopping habits, and retail tastes.” Understanding what “drives people, how they choose to live,” was integral to both of Cantor’s jobs, and is a skill that remains useful to this day, he says, as he learns about the complex districts within the GOP conference. He surveys each like a business project.

Cantor did the same in central Virginia, educating himself about every nook and cranny in the area, memorizing voting patterns and idiosyncrasies. Bliley was still in Congress in the Nineties, by then a rising committee star. Cantor was interested in succeeding him, but he kept his focus on Richmond. His state legislative record was a case study in chamber-of-commerce conservatism. Cantor was a major advocate for business, from large corporations to mom-and-pop shops. Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers, so “I learned how to work in a minority,” he says.

By 2000, Bliley was ready to retire. Cantor was seen as his natural successor. But state senator Stephen Martin challenged Cantor for the GOP nomination. Martin, an evangelical Christian, was accused of having ties to front groups that sent anti-Semitic mailers to primary voters. Martin denies the charge to this day, but when a group called him “the only Christian” in the contest, Cantor saw a new, dirtier side of politics. His wealthy family and big-dollar backers also became an issue, with Martin railing against both.

Near the end of the campaign, things became so uncomfortable for his family that Cantor sent Diana and the kids to her cousin’s home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to avoid the bitter final week. “I told her that we would win this thing, but we could not let ourselves become distracted,” he says. On election night, Cantor did win, barely, topping Martin by fewer than 300 of the more than 40,000 votes cast.

After the primary, Cantor brought his family home and began to reach out to Martin’s backers. “You go forward,” he explains. “I really am a person who does not look back much. I know that can be a detriment. But one of the things I had to do was make sure that those who supported him knew that I shared their values, too.”

#page#Cantor easily won the 7th congressional district that fall, taking the seat once held by James Madison. Bliley advised him to talk to Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, who at the time was the majority whip. A few weeks later, he was asked to join the whip team, a rare honor for a freshman. He relished the role. “That is where you get a lot of information,” he says. “When you come back into town and people wonder what’s going on in Washington, you want information, and that was the attraction for me.” He also enjoyed getting to know members. “I have always been very curious about people,” he says. “Seeing what makes them tick, what their backgrounds are, I am always curious about that.”

Cantor’s colleagues pegged him as one to watch. In November 2002, Rep. Roy Blunt, a Republican of Missouri and then the incoming majority whip, phoned him late at his office. Blunt had some news: Cantor was going to be his second-in-command, the chief deputy whip, during the next session. Cantor was shocked. He wanted to climb the ladder, but he never expected that kind of promotion to come so quickly.

Cantor backed Blunt for majority leader in February 2006, following Tom DeLay’s resignation. Yet Boehner, in an upset, beat Blunt. Cantor, who stayed chief deputy whip, began to work closely with the Ohio Republican for the first time. When Blunt stepped down from the minority-whip slot in 2008, Cantor won the position, working as Boehner’s right-hand man. The relationship between the pair, however, has never been especially warm. Boehner, one Republican aide says, is a cigar-loving backslapper, the kind of guy who lives for golf and fine Merlot. Cantor does not golf, keeps kosher, and doesn’t mind spending evenings checking in with his staff via his BlackBerry or iPad. As one member tells me, “They don’t click, to put it mildly.”

The majority leader begs to differ. “We’ve had a very productive working relationship,” Cantor says. “We meet regularly, at least three, four times a week, maybe more. I have a very open dialogue with him. Both of us are team players. We share a philosophy of governance.” That may be, says one committee chairman, “but Cantor also takes a position one inch to the right on almost every issue, and everyone sees right through that. He is always cordial, sure, but we can see what he’s up to. Every conference meeting is a dance between the two, seeing who can sound more conservative.”

Cantor’s allies are quick to point out that he is not afraid to challenge House conservatives, even though he often courts them and rallies behind their causes. In late July, as Boehner unveiled his final debt-limit plan, a package of cuts tied to an extension, Cantor addressed the conference and told them to stop “whining” and “grumbling” about the proposal’s specifics, which some Republicans felt did too little to address the deficit. “The debt-limit vote sucks,” he said, according to sources in the room. He reminded his colleagues that in divided government, a half-loaf is better than what Reid and Obama were cooking up.

The speakership, many Republicans predict, is the next step for Cantor, should Boehner step down in coming years. Cantor, of course, downplays such talk, but the debt-ceiling negotiations have only elevated him in the eyes of House conservatives — and bestowed on him the honor of Republican Obama Despises Most.

Boehner, to his credit, has taken Cantor’s rise in stride. At a book party last year for Young Guns, the policy manifesto co-authored by Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy, Boehner took the microphone before the small crowd in Johnny’s Half-Shell, a popular restaurant on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. He gazed toward his lieutenants. “The three of them know my job is to make sure that they’re well-qualified and ready to take my place,” he cracked — “at the appropriate moment.”

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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