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.

What Cantor learned, to his chagrin, is that solving problems, much less finding compromises, is not on the agenda of a majority of his House Republican colleagues. They rebuffed him, instead insisting on yet another vote to repeal Obamacare, the only health policy most of them want to pursue.

Cantor is facing serious headwinds on another plank in his agenda: education. In his speech at AEI, Cantor said, "Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major. What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities? Armed with this knowledge, families and students could make better decisions about where to go to school and how to budget their tuition dollars. Students would actually have a better chance of graduating within four years and getting a job." Cantor endorsed a bill to provide information and transparency drafted by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. But that idea is getting nowhere, it appears, in the relevant House committee, thanks to opposition by key GOP members on the panel.

The push for the umpteenth vote on repealing Obamacare shows the stark reality here, something The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has written eloquently about: Many, maybe most, House Republicans have no interest in policy other than reflexively opposing everything Obama proposes or endorses and jumping into investigations of real or purported scandals. Call them the Nihilist Caucus. And now that we have the triple play of Benghazi, the IRS, and the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records, they can focus all of their attention and energies on the scandal front; already, a full third of House committees have jumped on the bandwagons, and we can expect more ahead. That means any appetite for policymaking, even the limited appetite we have seen so far, will evaporate.

The dilemma here for Cantor, Boehner, and others who see that a failure to come up with real ideas and alternative policies is a killer for Republicans at the polls is that the movement they exploited to win the House in 2010 has no interest in the future of the Republican Party. A fascinating new paper by William and Mary political scientist Ron Rapoport and colleagues, emanating from a massive survey of more than 11,000 tea-party activists, shows that they do not identify deeply as Republicans, don't care nearly as much about winning elections as they do in taking ideologically pure positions, and are far removed in their views from establishment, conservative Republicans. These activists dominate the constituencies and provide the base support for the House Republicans who disdain Cantor's efforts to craft policies. They aren't going way, and neither will the nihilism they represent.