The GOP Can't Win With Eric Cantor as Its Ambassador

Whatever his strengths, communicating a compelling vision to the American people isn't one of them.
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Over the weekend, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor participated in several panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and was interviewed on its most prominent stage at an event witnessed by virtually all attendees. For a conservative like Cantor, the event was an opportunity to raise his profile, win converts in a crowd of left-leaning moderates, or at least make a favorable impression on an audience of wealthy business elites, thought leaders, and journalists. This year, Tim Pawlenty and Karl Rove both managed to sound like knowledgeable men with a coherent vision of American politics, however much one might disagree with their conclusions. 

In contrast, Cantor seemed to have little sense of how to impress (let alone win over) his audience, especially at that biggest event, where he was interviewed by National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, who may as well have asked, "Could you recite conservative boilerplate in a monotone?"

A Cantor profile published earlier this year by Ryan Lizza recounted what happened in January at the annual strategy retreat held by Republican members of the House of Representatives. Ponnuru spoke at that retreat, telling the assembled Republicans that the 2012 election wasn't close, and urging them to face the face the fact that the GOP is in many ways a weak party, because too many voters believe its economic agenda helps nobody except rich people and big business. At that same retreat, Lizza interviewed Cantor about the election:

"We've got to understand that people don't think Republicans have their back," he said. "Whether it's the middle class, whether it's the Latino or the Asian vote." It was not "necessarily our policies" but, rather, how "we've been portrayed." He added, "It goes to that axiom about how people don't really care how much you know until they know you care. So we've got to take that to heart and, I think, look to be able to communicate why we're doing what we're doing."

Here's this weekend's exchange between Ponnuru and Cantor:

Ramesh Ponnuru: You mentioned the eight-seat loss in the November 2012 elections. I'm struck when I talk to your colleagues and other Republicans that there's really no consensus among Republicans about what went wrong, as compared to 2008 when there was a very simple story Republicans could tell themselves about what happened. So I was wondering what your view is of what went wrong for the Republican Party in 2012.

Eric Cantor: I think there are several lessons learned that we can talk about. Our economic message, as a party, is one of opportunity. We are focused really on people and individual freedom, not enriching government power. Somehow, that motivation that we have wasn't received by the electorate in a way that the electorate felt worked for them. Right now, I mean obviously there are a lot of people struggling with stagnant wages, with increasing costs of health care, energy, tuition. We actually have solutions that deal with that.

But they don't come from the easy answer, to say, hey, we'll just have government do it for you without thinking about the cost. We also talk a lot about the heroic entrepreneur, you know, the fact that most of us are immigrants to this country at some point in our family's history. Most are here by choice, some, unfortunately, this country didn't always get it right, and were forced to come here against their own will, but we're still working on that, being a land of opportunity.

My grandparents came from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century -- like so many of their generation, they were fleeing from the anti-Semitic pogroms of the czars of Russia. But they were able to come here. They were able, without a lot of formal education, without knowing the right people, to begin a business and start a family. After they did that, my father was born. A couple years later, my grandfather died, and my grandmother, just about 30 years old, was faced with life's challenge as a widow, 2 kids, and a grocery store that she and her husband had opened, as a single mom who happened to be Jewish in the segregated south.

But she went ahead and she made it, and she worked hard: thrift, faith, and abiding by her commitment to make a better life for her kids. That is what our economic message was about. 

This is a remarkable answer. It begins by acknowledging that there are "a lot of people struggling with stagnant wages, with increasing costs of health care, energy, tuition," and promises, "We actually have solutions that deal with that." But the only solution ultimately offered is to work hard, be thrifty, have faith, and try to make life better for your kids. That's life advice, not a policy agenda.

Cantor went on:

Unfortunately, we saw in this election, that message didn't really resonate with a lot of people who may want to be that entrepreneur or small businessperson, but frankly are too busy trying to get through the month, keep paying the bills, worry about how they're going to save for college, how they're going to show up for work and go to the PTA meeting if that's the case. So we've got a lot of work to do, I believe, in demonstrating that our solutions do work for working people and struggling families.

I'd hazard that "if you find yourself a widow with two kids in a place where you also face religious bigotry, just be thrifty and have faith" still isn't resonating with many working-class Americans.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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