Least Valuable Player: Rep. Eric Cantor

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I've complained in the past about Sen. Richard Shelby's willful veto of Peter Diamond's nomination as a Fed governor, and about Sen. Mitch McConnell's intentional stall of nominees across the board, as a passive-aggressive way to hamstring the Administration.

Both of them now give way to Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader (official Congressional photo, via Wikipedia, right), who in walking out of the talks to avoid a default on U.S. debt gives as clear an example of petty-ambition-over-national-interest as we've seen in public life in quite a while.

The Atlantic Wire provides background for the move, and Ezra Klein makes the motivations clear. Cantor was happy to stay in the negotiations through the budget-cutting stage. But as soon as the unavoidable other part of the negotiations began -- finding ways to raise revenue -- he chickened out and left the hard work (for a Republican) to House Speaker John Boehner. As Klein accurately sums up it:

>>Cantor has the credibility with the Tea Party that Boehner lacks. But that's why Cantor won't cut the deal. The Tea Party-types support him because he's the guy who won't cut the deal. He can't sign off on tax increases without losing his power base....

If you had to write a plausible scenario for how America defaults on its debt, or at least seriously spooks the market, this is how it would start....

Cantor is putting personal power before country here, and in a very dangerous way. If Boehner actually does manage to cut a decent deal despite Cantor's effort to throw him under the bus, he may not hold on as leader of his party, but unlike Cantor, he'll deserve to.<<

I am on the record, over the years, as a big believer in America's resilient powers. But there are mistakes so large that they can badly hurt even the United States. A petulant demonstration to the rest of the world that we can't meet the baseline obligation we expect of any two-bit duchy -- that it will face its financial problems and honor its sovereign debt -- would be a big, damaging step in the wrong direction. Good for John Boehner in recognizing that more than his own ambitions are at stake here. If the default actually comes, and markets panic, and interest rates for everything shoot up, keep the courageous Rep. Cantor in mind on that day.

[After the jump: Cantor's explanation of why he walked out.]

Cantor's explanation:

>>[E]ach side came into these talks with certain orders, and as it stands the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases. There is not support in the House for a tax increase, and I don't believe now is the time to raise taxes in light of our current economic situation. Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue. Given this impasse, I will not be participating in today's meeting and I believe it is time for the President to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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