‘Things Could Get Pretty Messy’: The Man Who Would Be the Next House Majority Leader Talks About the GOP Agenda and Working With Obama

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BY STEVE MOORE  – ‘Look, we know we screwed up when we were in the majority. We fell in love with power. We spent way too much money—especially on earmarks. There was too much corruption when we ran this place. We were guilty. And that’s why we lost.”

That’s the confession of Eric Cantor, the 47-year old congressman from Richmond, Va. If Republicans win back the House in November’s elections, Mr. Cantor would be the next majority leader—the second most powerful post in that chamber behind the speaker. And he could be Barack Obama’s worst nightmare.


His mea culpa for Republican sins when they ran Congress pre-2007 is part of his unorthodox pitch for why voters should give the GOP another chance at power. They appreciate Mr. Cantor’s honesty. And he assures them that the changing of the guard—evident by his own rise since his first election in 2000, and the ascent of others like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jeb Hensarling of Texas—signifies a new direction for the party.

The congressman seems confident that the “young guns”—the title of a new book he coauthored with Mr. Ryan and Rep. Kevin McCarthy—will have the gumption to restrain the old bulls of the party, most of whom still believe in the virtue of backroom deals and bringing home the bacon.

Mr. Cantor has just arrived back in town after five weeks criss-crossing the country stumping for scores of Republican challengers. “I’ve met almost all of these candidates who are likely to win in November,” he says. “Believe me, this is one of the most reformist groups I’ve ever seen.”

We’re meeting in Mr. Cantor’s cramped third-floor office in a remote corner of the cavernous U.S. Capitol. With his horned-rim glasses and combed-back black hair, Mr. Cantor looks like he walked off the “Mad Men” set. There’s a little over a month left before the elections, and he looks slightly worn out but excited that big things could happen soon for his party.

We sit down just as the Democrats have thrown in the towel on extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. This means that every tax filer, not only those earning more than $200,000, may get socked with a higher bill next year. “I’m stunned,” he says. “In the House and the Senate we have a bipartisan majority against allowing there to be tax hikes on anyone right now.”

So why has Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked that vote? “She can’t let that vote happen,” Mr. Cantor says, because extending the tax cuts “would take the rug out from their entire class warfare rhetoric and argument.”

When I ask him to describe his relationship with Mrs. Pelosi, he says flatly that it is “nonexistent.” “The speaker has absolutely demonstrated she is not interested in having any policy discussions over legislation with Republicans, period.”

Of course, that’s not the White House narrative of the last two years. Mr. Obama says Democrats have tried to reach out to House Republicans but the GOP leadership refuses to cooperate. I ask Mr. Cantor how many times the speaker has called upon him to talk about legislation. “None. In the past three-and-a-half years, not once.” He continues: “The only time I’m in her office is if there’s foreign heads of state visiting, and she invites me. Or that one time around the health-care debate when there were—according to the other side—angry tea party mobs converging on the Capitol. We were beckoned to her office. She wanted a resolution demanding that there be civil conduct in the crowds. I just took offense at that and thought it would only aggravate the situation.” He says he found “the whole process detestable.”

What about the debate over the $812 billion stimulus at the very start of the Obama presidency? Mr. Cantor recalls that shortly after Mr. Obama won election, “he came up here and met with [Minority Leader John] Boehner and me and there were a lot of nice words exchanged. We told him, ‘Hey, we have got some ideas on the economy.’ He said ‘Bring them on.'” At the White House only a few weeks later, “Mr. Obama said to us, ‘Look, elections have consequences and I won.'”

Republicans “never even saw the stimulus bill” until it was voted on, says Mr. Cantor. “We had no opportunity to add to it or amend the bill at all. It was take it or leave it.” In this atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Obama grabbing a beer with Mr. Boehner or Mr. Cantor the way that Ronald Reagan famously did with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

The Republicans have released their “Pledge to America” policy agenda, so I ask the congressman what comes first if the Republicans become the majority in November. Mr. Cantor says if Democrats allow the income and investment tax rates to rise in January, “I promise you, H.R. 1 will be to retroactively restore the lower rates so no one has a tax increase in 2011.”

Step two will be “cutting spending as much as we can.” House Republicans hope to “take a cue” from Republican Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who made steep spending cuts in their first year in office. “We will cut programs, we will try to rein in the size of the bureaucracy. We will bring federal pay scales that have become so exaggerated into line with market rates,” the congressman says.

Mr. Cantor also hopes to eliminate whole programs and departments by putting sunset provisions into law. “Why would you want a federal program to exist, if number one, it’s not executing its mission and, number two, . . . if the mission is not valid anymore?” He cites 17 duplicative education programs, and federal technology grants.

This ambitious downsizing agenda could set up a 1995-style budget showdown. That year, President Bill Clinton vetoed Speaker Newt Gingrich’s budget, which led to a fateful showdown that many believe revitalized the Clinton presidency.

Are we headed there again? “No, Mr. Cantor says, “I don’t think the country needs or wants a shutdown.” He thinks such a scenario can be prevented if the Republicans “relentlessly make the case for how government overspending and debt are strangling the future competitiveness and growth of this country.”

Mr. Cantor assures me he understands that this downsizing plan may run into a roadblock from some in his own party. Republican appropriators tripped up the limited-government strategy in the late 1990s and during George W. Bush’s presidency. “We know that appropriators will fight these cutbacks,” he says. “But by eliminating earmarks, we can stop the horse trading that grows agency budgets.” He tells me he would be “open-minded to term limits for the appropriations committee,” on which he hopes Republicans will place fiscal conservatives. But the top-ranking Republicans on the House appropriations committee—including Jerry Lewis of California, who is in line to be chairman—are spenders extraordinaire who could capsize the GOP budget-reduction agenda.

Mr. Cantor’s economic outlook is certainly one that resonates with conservatives. But many are grumbling that the Pledge to America didn’t also include a promise to end earmarks. “Don’t mistake this year’s Republican caucus with next year’s,” Mr. Cantor responds. “We’re going to do real earmark reform even though it was missing from the pledge. If you look at the makeup of the conference right now, and then add on to that the incoming freshmen class, those folks aren’t coming to Washington [for] . . . pork-barrel spending. They really aren’t.”

Another concern is that Republicans lack a coherent growth agenda beyond simply cutting spending. To this, Mr. Cantor objects: “We will start by unraveling the economic damage that has been done by their agenda, whether it’s health care, or whether it’s the financial reg reform or regulations from EPA that are strangling businesses.”

He strongly favors ending the drilling ban in the Gulf of Mexico, “which is costing us thousands of jobs.” Still, he adds that Republicans “have to be careful about how we do it. We don’t want to be seen as a bunch of yahoos.”

As for taxes, Mr. Cantor says he “would like to see the cap-gains rate reduced to nothing because that’s what angel investors, who go and fund start-ups, look at. If you want that kind of growth and incubation, you’ve got to look at incentives to put capital at risk.”

“Next,” he continues, “in a perfect world we would bring corporate tax rates down to 25% or less so we can get competitive in the world economy. Ultimately, I would love to see a flat tax.”

Mr. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House and Senate (there are more than 40 Jewish Democrats), and we discuss why. “First of all,” he laughs, “I’m looking for some company in Randy Altschuler,” who is running in the first congressional district of New York. “Randy’s looking good in his race, so we are hoping to double the Jewish Republican caucus.”

Mr. Cantor believes the American-Jewish community is overwhelmingly Democratic because Jews “are prone to want to help the underdog.” But he thinks the Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party is changing, in large part because of Israel. “I tell the Jewish groups that more and more of the problems with convincing folks that Israel’s security is synonymous with our own comes from the Democrats. There are a lot in the progressive movement in this country who do not feel that the U.S. should ever be leaning towards Israel. They are openly hostile” toward the Jewish state.

Mr. Cantor points to a poll indicating that 46% of American Jews say they would consider voting for another individual for president. “That is astonishing given the history. Reagan got 40%—that was probably the high water mark.”

I can’t avoid asking about the rumors that his relationship with Mr. Boehner has become prickly. “First, I support Boehner as speaker, period. And it’s a good working relationship,” Mr. Cantor says. But he doesn’t deny there are policy disagreements, which he attributes to the fact that “he’s in a different generation.” Then he hastens to add: “It’s the Democrats who are in utter disarray right now . . . Pelosi can’t hold her caucus together. We’re the ones who are unified.”

That was the case in 1994, during the last Republican revolution. The question on everyone’s mind is, if Republicans win in November, does this president have it in him to pivot back to the political center the way Bill Clinton did?

Mr. Cantor doubts it. “I just don’t see this White House right now being willing to let go of its leftist ideology to work with us to solve problems. Look at the tax debate. They are ideologues.” For Mr. Obama to move to the middle and work with Republicans will require them, says Mr. Cantor, to “absolutely change who they are. The question is whether the survival instinct overtakes their ideology. I don’t see that happening.”

So how does all this play out if the Republicans win the majority in Congress and the president remains on the left side of the playing field? “Well, at least voters will know we will provide a check and balance,” he responds. “And we will have the power of the purse.” He pauses. “Things could get pretty messy.”

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.