How Eric Cantor Is Trying to Soften the Republican Party

(Ron Fournier) (National Journal)

Eric Cantor grabs a plastic dinosaur from the pile of toys in front of 1-year-old Mekhi Scott, taps the beast on the table and growls, "RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Mekhi jumps — he's startled at first — and smiles.

"You like dinosaurs?" coos Cantor, the House majority leader and one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the country. "So do I."

Watching this weirdly cute exchange Monday at The Preparatory School of the District of Columbia, I realize just how hard it's going to be for the GOP to rebrand itself after the 2012 election debacle. Republican leaders are a bit like Mekhi's plastic dinosaurs: Even when they're cute, they can be scary.

Cantor visited the school for more than an hour to gather information for a speech Tuesday that his aides are billing as an important shift of tone for the Republican Party. The speech will attempt to cast the House GOP's traditionally conservative policy agenda in terms that appeal to parents, explaining why school vouchers, tax breaks, repealing the health care law, and other Republican standards would "make life work better."

Will people buy the softer side of Cantor? The question is an important one because the second-most powerful House Republican is not the only GOP leader trying to inject some pragmatism into the party. In just the last few weeks:

  • The GOP-controlled House capitulated to President Obama on the debt-ceiling debate. Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2012, cited the "realities of divided government" when he urged his rank and file to effectively eat crow.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, is quietly lobbying conservative lawmakers and commentators to consider immigration reforms. In the not-to-distant past, Rubio's proposals would have been fatally labeled as stalking horses for amnesty.
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republican National Committee that the GOP must "stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. It's time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We've had enough of that."
  • A group led by Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, announced this week that it would spend money in Republican primaries to defeat far-right candidates whom the group considers unelectable. American Crossroads spent millions of dollars to defeat Democrats in the 2012 elections, and got little return on the investment.

In his speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, Cantor plans to ask Congress to require universities to warn students when their academic majors lack employment opportunities; to repeal the tax on medical devices, a provision of Obama's health care overhaul; and to shift spending from political sciences to "hard" sciences such as cancer research.

One thing he won't do is moderate Republican policies. Cantor is talking about a change in tone, not ideology, which begs the question: With a demographic tide threatening to crush the modern GOP, is it enough to just tweak talking points?

"It's having a conversation on different terms," Cantor said in a telephone interview later today. While he remains committed to reducing the debt and trimming government, Cantor said he wants to frame GOP policies in ways that explain the positive impact on people's lives.

He suggested the approach might make working with Democrats easier. "If we start talking about people," Cantor told me, "maybe we can all come together."

Cantor also is expected to endorse the broad outlines of Rubio's approach on immigration. He came to Mekhi's school to underscore his support of a conservative approach to education: allowing federal money now spent in public schools to follow individual children, even if they enroll in private schools such at Mekhi's.

The Preparatory School is based in a low-income section of the district, providing small classes and a safe environment to about 100 students. The average teacher salary is about $25 an hour, far below the rate at public schools.

The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that about $1,100 of federal money goes toward the education of the average U.S. public school student. Cantor wants unhappy public school parents empowered to spend that money in private schools.

Awaiting Cantor's arrival, school vice principal Richard Reavis said that the parents who feel trapped in public schools generally can't afford a private education. "That's the challenge," he said. "I don't have Uncle Sam."

Cantor, the father of three grown children and a representative from Virginia, seemed to genuinely enjoy the visit, wandering from class to class chatting with the students. His aides had to pull him away from conversations to keep him on schedule.

"Y'all keep up the good work, OK?" he told a class of teenagers while walking out of their class, past a bright yellow sign that said, "Bully Free Zone."

Partisan Democrats love to call Republicans bullies, belittling GOP policies as cruel and heartless. Left unanswered, demagoguery sticks — which is the point of Cantor's charm offensive.

Update: Cantor's office released excerpts of the text of his address later today. This might be the best quote, given how it reflects the line Cantor is walking: "Government policy should aim to strike a balance between what is needed to advance the next generation, what we can afford, what is a federal responsibility and what is necessary to ensure our children are safe, healthy and able to reach their dreams."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mislabeled Cantor's position in House leadership.  He is House majority leader.