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.