Is It Possible That Eric Cantor Just Wasn't Conservative Enough?

WASHINGTON -- The night of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, a group of 15 or so Republican lawmakers gathered at the Caucus Room, a high-end D.C. restaurant, to plot ways to thwart the newly-elected president’s agenda.

Among the crowd was Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost his primary campaign for reelection on Tuesday night.

The Virginia Republican was already a lawmaker of stature and power at that point. About a half-year earlier, he had been floated as a potential presidential running mate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a suggestion that underscored, at once, Cantor’s fast-rising status and his penchant for political opportunism. It was widely assumed that Cantor’s allies had been the ones who had leaked his name as a VP possibility to the press.

That night in the Caucus Room, Cantor and others plotted life in the Obama years. In his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Draper cast this scene as the launchpad for years of GOP obstructionism.

"We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reportedly said.

While McCarthy whipped up the ranks, Cantor manned the trenches. Having been elected minority whip, he quickly organized the entire House GOP conference against the president’s most pressing legislative agenda item. He would not give Obama a single vote on the economic stimulus, lest the bill have even the slightest veneer of bipartisanship. Cantor went to work with tactical precision. As Jason Zengerle wrote in a 2011 New York magazine profile of Cantor:

The first thing he did was commission a national poll to show fellow Republican congressmen that while Obama was personally popular, his policies were not. Then he assembled what he called the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group to come up with an alternative stimulus package. The group’s plan was larded with tax cuts that would make it a nonstarter for Obama, but the president’s expected rejection was part of the plan. “If we were going to oppose it,” Cantor says now of Obama’s stimulus package, “our members needed to be able to go home to their districts and say to the Rotary Club or their Chamber of Commerce that it’s not just ‘no’ but that we have our own way of doing it.”

The tone was set. And it would continue to be this way for the next few years. Cantor wasn’t just a thorn in the side of the Obama administration. He was the guy pushing the president into the rose bush.

Cantor was part of the Young Gun coalition, which presented itself, in cheesy Hollywood fashion, as suave, Luke Skywalker-styled lawmakers taking on the evil empire. He spearheaded opposition to Obama’s health care law throughout 2010, calling into question whether people’s health care plans would be cancelled because of a tighter regulatory market (a moment he gleefully relived when it became an issue in 2013).

Perhaps most memorable was the destructive role Cantor played in the budget negotiations that dominated 2011. With Republicans taking over the House, he had assumed the role of majority leader, and the likelihood of him being the first Jewish House speaker was discussed with an assuredness that it made the relationship between him and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) quite awkward. Cantor didn’t help matters by repeatedly foiling Boehner’s negotiations with Obama.

In very public and dramatic fashion, Cantor backed out of budget talks with Vice President Joe Biden. Then, when Obama and Boehner picked up the baton, Cantor scuttled that as well.

The obstructionism didn’t end there. Cantor famously opposed disaster relief funds, even after his home state was hit by an earthquake. He opposed extensions of unemployment benefits in 2011 (when they weren’t paid for) and in 2014 (when they were). He opposed virtually every environmental policy put forward by the administration, picked culture war battles, and was a consistent critic of Obama’s foreign policy. In a controversial comment that his aides quickly tried to tamp down, he reportedly told Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Republican Party would serve as a check on Obama.

One of the instances that best exemplified the ethos Cantor brought to governance involved food stamps. As the Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney recounted:

In the summer of 2013 House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) worked closely with ranking Democrat Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and the committee's conservative Republicans to win the panel's approval of a farm bill that cut food stamps by $20 billion.

When the bill went from the committee to the House floor, Cantor took charge. In leadership meetings and in a floor speech he pressed for an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) that would cut food stamps by much more. Lucas had wanted to pass a farm bill with Democratic support, but the Southerland amendment spoiled the bipartisan approach and the bill failed.

Cantor and Republican leaders eventually pushed a separate bill that cut food stamps by twice as much as the Lucas version, which passed the House with only Republican support -- but the extra cuts were predictably tossed aside when the House bills were combined with the Senate's more moderate legislation. Congress ultimately approved smaller food stamp cuts than Democrats had been willing to support.

Given all these high-profile moments, Cantor’s reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative seemed rather unshakeable.

“Eric Cantor is a very conservative guy,” Steve LaTourette, a former Republican congressman who now works to elect moderates with his group the Republican Main Street Partnership, told MSNBC. “I didn’t think there was any room to his right, but they found some.”

Indeed, “they” did.

Cantor’s loss to David Brat, a professor and tea party member, on Tuesday night showed that Cantor had not endeared himself to his own party members, even while voting with them 96 percent of the time.

But was it because he wasn’t conservative enough, or was it something else entirely?

In conversations Tuesday night, both Republican and Democratic strategists conceded that Cantor's defeat wasn’t just an ideological litmus-test election. Cantor had angered conservatives in a number of ways. Some involved votes, such as the ones he cast to end the government shutdown and lift the debt ceiling in 2013 (which, Cantor contended, was something he did not out of a leadership obligation, and not out of philosophical sympathies). Others involved direction, such as his efforts to soften the tone and move the party toward more moderate ground on some social issues, his negotiations on items like the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, and most obviously, his on-again off-again flirtation with supporting an immigration Dream Act.

But mainly, it was style. Cantor may have been a statistical conservative. He certainly was a public antagonist for the Obama administration. But how many thought it was sincere, and how many assumed it was crass political machinations?

Six years after his name was conspicuously floated as a vice presidential nominee, the image of Cantor as someone scheming for his own good persisted. And in this primary, it was used to Brat’s advantage.

One of the most devastating charges against Cantor was not just that he supported immigration reform, but that he did it because he wanted to cozy up to moneyed interests. As The Huffington Post’s Zach Carter noted:

Brat's campaign exploited his close affiliation with corporate elites, savaging Cantor's ties to the the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- the foremost lobbying group representing large American corporations -- and the Business Roundtable, a lobby operation for CEOs. Early this month, Brat tweeted a picture of Cantor with his arm around Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that read: "There are 20 million americans who can't find a full-time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead." It was a ruthless exploitation of both social conservative anxieties over immigration and intensifying tea party outrage over the connections between big business and Washington.

Correction: This article originally said that Jonathan Chait wrote the New York Magazine profile of Cantor. It was Jason Zengerle.



Eric Cantor