Sympathy for a Thwarted Eric Cantor

The tea-party movement he helped foster won't fall in line behind his efforts to push an alternative conservative agenda.

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Readers of It's Even Worse Than It Looks know that I have not always treated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor kindly. I have excoriated him for engineering the debt-ceiling crisis in 2011 as a hostage-taking exercise, and then blowing up the talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner that could have led to a grand bargain. Cantor himself recently took credit for the latter in a profile written by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker. He told Lizza "that it was a 'fair assessment' that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama's deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and 'have it out' with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reelection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican president? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a grand bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet."

But I have to express some sympathy for Cantor now, as he experiences the real and deep pain of trying to get his caucus--especially the tea-party members he helped recruit in 2010 and encouraged in their strident, antigovernment rhetoric--to accept a positive agenda of conservative and market-driven policies as an alternative to those of the Democrats and the Obama administration. Back in February, Cantor gave a highly publicized address at the American Enterprise Institute called "Making Life Work," which offered a framework, with some specifics, for that positive agenda--one that tried to separate areas where government does not belong or does not do as good a job as the private sector from those where government should play a role--and then offered proposals for how to best assert that role in a free-enterprise framework.

Subsequently, Cantor began to take pieces of that agenda to the House floor--and with his most visible one, got burned, badly, by his caucus. That was the plan to address the problem of those Americans with preexisting health conditions who either lose their insurance or can't get it. There is an overwhelming public consensus that this is a problem that needs fixing, and it is at the core of Obama's health care law, especially via an agreement with insurance companies that if coverage were made universal, the preexisting-condition issue would be erased.

For Republicans, who uniformly and vociferously opposed the Affordable Care Act, finding an alternative way to deal with preexisting conditions has been difficult. But Cantor offered an idea called the Helping Sick Americans Now Act to at least ameliorate the transition phase, proposing to take money out of the Prevention and Public Health Fund and put it in an existing high-risk pool that is currently inadequately funded. While conservatives have lashed out at the preventive-health program, calling it a "slush fund," it is, in my view, one of the more constructive elements of "Obamacare"--we know that preventive care can both help people and save a lot of money down the road. Nonetheless, at least Cantor was trying to do something aimed at solving a big problem--and without a positive agenda on the part of the minority, it becomes impossible to find compromises that can help implement key programs or solve problems.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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