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.

Next came an exchange on immigration:

Ponnuru: Well, you mentioned immigration a fair amount in that answer. And I was just wondering whether you think the party's tone and position on those issues have contributed to the problems in the election and whether the immigration bill that's now passed the Senate is an opportunity to set things right?

Cantor: Well, you know, politics, like so many other things, just comes down to caring about people, right? And it is that old adage that says that people don't really care how much you know unless they know you care. And I do think that's a challenge for all elected officials right now. While Washington seems to be distracted with internal feuds, you know, matters that may not be relevant to most people in this country, we've gotta really take time to focus on that which may provide a little bit of hope for a lot of folks. Now, the immigration bill just passed the Senate, and contrary to a lot of the reports, we in the House really do want to make progress on this issue.

We are taking a much different approach than the Senate, and the way we are going about it is our judiciary committee and its chairman are addressing individual issues, one at a time. There have already been 5 bills we've seen marked up in committee, that will be sent to the floor. There was a bill that had to do with agricultural workers, guest workers who had to come to the country and have the ability to do so. A bill very relevant to some of the discussions here at Aspen about how do we encourage more skilled workers to be here, how do we finally get that staple the green card to the diploma rule into law, so that we don't see highly skilled foreign nationals with PhDs and masters degrees from our universities fleeing this country, taking their venture capital with them. And many other bills on employer enforcement, border enforcement, interior enforcement. And then we'll get to the very difficult issues that we've got to resolve. One of those I feel very passionately about and that's the kids. I hope strongly that the kids who were brought here as minors because their parents brought them, for no other reason, and they find themselves here in a country that says they don't belong. Certainly we should have the compassion to say, these kids shouldn't be kids without a country. And we ought to allow them the life that they desserve.

To me, that's a tone-deaf answer. I agree with Cantor that kids brought here illegally through no fault of their own ought to be treated with compassion -- kudos to him for taking the right position on that issue. But it's more difficult to use the issue to showcase the GOP's compassionate side when your frame is that there are these comparatively easy issues, like "employer enforcement, border enforcement, interior enforcement," that you're handling first, and then the "very difficult issues" that you'll get too, like kids brought here through no fault of their own, who've spent years without a country because of laws you agree to be uncompassionate. 

Lizza's profile quoted another high-profile Republican congressman on Cantor's performance as a leader:

"He's a fantastic Majority Leader," Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a close friend, said. "Eric keeps the trains running on time very efficiently." As Mitt Romney's former running mate and the architect of the budget policies that some Republicans blame for their loss in 2012, Ryan is well aware of his party's problems. "What Eric is really focused on is that we need to do a better job of broadening our appeal and showing that we have real ideas and solutions that make people's lives better," Ryan said. "Eric is the guy who studies the big vision and is doing the step-by-step, daily management of the process to get us there. That is a huge job."

That may well be true -- implementing a big vision and speaking about it frankly and persuasively in public are very different things. But based on Cantor's words, I can discern no big vision, nor any new ideas, nor any rhetoric with any hope of broadening the Republican Party's appeal. Said Lizza, "Cantor is frequently talked about as a future Speaker; he could even be a future President, some of his aides say." 

Take a look at the interview embedded above. Does anyone believe he could be a future president?

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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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