Why Eric Cantor's Absence Is Reason for Hope for the Fiscal-Cliff Talks

Once a major thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner, the majority leader has fallen into line after a struggle for dominance.

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Reuters

Remember the debt-ceiling fight? President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried to put together a big deal on taxes and spending, only to have the whole thing fall apart -- largely because Boehner couldn't unify the fractious, unruly House Republicans around the prospect of compromise.

If you think it all sounds frighteningly familiar in light of the last few weeks' fiscal-cliff talks, you're not alone. But there's a major difference that close watchers of the process have noticed: Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a constant presence in the July 2011 talks, is nowhere to be seen this time around.

The change is a meaningful one. Cantor was cast as the bad cop in the debt-ceiling fight. As the spokesman for the Tea Party freshmen, he pushed Boehner away from making a deal -- at one point even contradicting the speaker in front of Obama, a move both the White House and Republicans took as a humiliating slight.

This time, Cantor's only role has been as a staunch supporter of Boehner in his talks with the president. The change is the result of a behind-the-scenes battle for dominance between the two men, which Boehner won decisively. And for those trying to figure out whether a deal can be reached in the final days before the fiscal-cliff deadline, Cantor's low profile is a very good sign -- a testament to Boehner's strengthened position as he undertakes the tricky task of rounding up reluctant Republican votes for a tax increase.

During the debt-ceiling talks, Cantor, an ambitious 49-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, saw internal political advantage in positioning himself as the voice of the Republican freshmen, the Tea Partiers, and the staunchly conservative wing of the GOP caucus, a top House Republican staffer told me. "No one saw that as very helpful," the staffer said. "He has a much lower profile now. He's really backed off whatever jockeying he was doing before, which got to be such a sideshow."

This time, Cantor hasn't been part of the direct negotiations. In part, that's because these talks are being conducted differently; they've mostly consisted of one-on-one communications between Obama and Boehner, a structure that has also cut Vice President Biden out of the loop. But it's also because Cantor has, quite deliberately, not been invited to take part, by either the speaker or the White House.

Instead, Cantor has taken on a behind-the-scenes role. Where a year-and-a-half ago he ferried the conservatives' message to Boehner, drilling home the idea that a plan involving raising taxes could never get enough votes to pass, now he shuttles in the opposite direction, arguing Boehner's case for tax hikes to often-dubious caucus members. Publicly, he issues statements of support; privately, he counsels unity.

It's a rather dizzying about-face, one only partly explained by the differing tenor of the two sets of talks. Another factor in the change: A calculated, months-long campaign by Boehner to assert his primacy within the caucus, amass internal political capital, and marginalize threats to his power. Cantor's current submissive pose is in part a tacit acknowledgment that Boehner succeeded in outmaneuvering him.

Cantor's stock with his colleagues began to drop during the primaries, when his super PAC raised hackles for the impolitic way it took sides. In a member-on-member House primary in Illinois, the YG Action Fund's backing of freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger over veteran Rep. Don Manzullo disgruntled other senior Republicans; in the Senate primary in Indiana, the group's support for incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar over his successful challenger, Richard Mourdock, offended the conservative grassroots.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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