July 17, 2011
Virginia’s young gun apparently shot himself in the foot.
Eric Cantor this past week had an opportunity to define himself for an audience beyond the Beltway as more than a rigid conservative with one word in his vocabulary: no. Instead, the U.S. House majority leader, seen as a deal breaker rather than a deal maker, may have only trivialized himself.
Having walked out of Joe Biden-led budget-and-deficit talks; undercut John Boehner on a big fix and engaged Barack Obama in verbal fisticuffs over the fine print of a possible deal, Cantor looked more the insipid pill than the professional politician. It was, David Weigel wrote for the online publication Slate, the “official Newt-ification of Eric Cantor.”
Cantor’s avuncular, bow-tied mentor-predecessor, Tom Bliley, isn’t sure how his protégé’s shtick is playing outside Washington, crush of crummy press notwithstanding. “He’s a hero to his conference and the right,” says Bliley. “But how far it would go with the independents — I don’t know. The jury’s still out on that.”
Events of the past week may have gone a long way toward casting Cantor the wrong way. Cantor wants to be seen as serious-minded. A trunk-load of degrees, stints in law and finance and a business-fed fundraising machine say as much. But his hissing match with Obama and spending cuts-only approach to budget-balancing strikes Republican plutocrats in his hometown as evidence that Cantor is serious all right — about politics, not governing.
That’s probably why Cantor, in a hurry-up effort at damage control, told The Associated Press, a news service with the widest possible reach, that he meant no disrespect to Obama. Cantor also attempted a show of solidarity with Boehner at a joint appearance that was more PDA — public display of affection — than news conference.
Bliley, a former Commerce Committee chairman-turned-lobbyist who has schmoozed Cantor on behalf of convenience store owners over a cap on debit card swipe fees, dismisses talk of a Cantor challenge to Boehner for the speakership. Cantor — as he did for Bliley’s seat, biding his time as a Henrico delegate in the General Assembly — will “wait his turn,” says Bliley.
But could events mean that Cantor, labeled the “shadow speaker” by New York magazine, won’t have to wait very long? “I don’t want to get into that speculation,” says Bliley. “That’s like asking me what’s going to happen in six months.”
In politics, that’s many lifetimes. And if one flashed before Cantor’s eyes as he was methodically demonized the first part of the week, another rolled out at week’s end, as he and Boehner conferred privately with the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, and White House chief of staff Bill Daley.
The point being that Cantor — his literal Elvis-like lip curl yielding to a figurative fat lip — remains relevant if only because of his rank: second-in-command of a House Republican Conference infused by tea partiers, who, despite Cantor’s no-no-a-thousand-times-no stance on new taxes, know that his record on fiscal issues is, at best, mixed. He previously voted to raise the debt ceiling, backed the deficit-financed Medicare drug benefit for seniors, two unpaid-for wars, the bank bailout and angled for Obama stimulus bucks for high-speed rail.
Having outmaneuvered Cantor for now, the president — alternately the smooth-talking conciliator and punch-in-the-nose Chicago pol — appears to be practicing an old-school rule: after stranding your adversary on a limb, you have to help him crawl back in.