Image: Eric Cantor
Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has made a name for himself among fiscal conservatives during the ongoing deficit-reduction talks.
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updated 7/22/2011 3:02:44 PM ET 2011-07-22T19:02:44

The day of reckoning on the debt ceiling is coming, and for no one in Congress is it more portentous than for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. A political figure of unarguable talent and ambition, the Virginia Republican could one day pursue any number of jobs: speaker of the House, governor of his home state, U.S. senator. Some Republicans believe that Cantor fantasizes about being the nation’s first Jewish president.

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Whatever his long-term goals, the next several weeks will go a long way toward deciding Cantor’s future. The unifying thread in his debt-ceiling machinations the past four weeks has been to burnish his credentials as the leading free-market conservative in the House. To attain his political ambitions, Cantor must not let that newly forged impression become tarnished. And because Washington doesn’t know and cannot see the debt-ceiling endgame, Cantor’s ability to help Speaker John Boehner negotiate a deal that can pass the House and satisfy conservatives towers over his future.

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When Boehner put Cantor in the budget talks with Vice President Joe Biden, his image on economic issues was solid but not sterling. When Cantor walked out of those talks because he opposed a White House push for tax increases, his stock rose among conservative activists. When he privately questioned (and in the mind of some House Republicans recklessly undermined) the $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal that Boehner had begun to negotiate with President Obama, his stock gained even more value among conservatives.

Video: Rep. Cantor – the face of the opposition? (on this page)

After sparring with Obama during contentious budget negotiations, Cantor became a movement darling. He is the driving force behind House passage of its cut, cap, and balance bill that thrills conservatives. Without Cantor, hard-core conservatives believe that that measure would never have made it to the floor or become the centerpiece of GOP debt-ceiling orthodoxy.

“He has clearly emerged as the conservative on free-market economic issues,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots coalition that pushed lower taxes and lower federal spending before the tea party existed. “Cantor’s become the ‘go-to’ guy. There’s no question about that.”

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Phillips is not just any conservative activist. He staunchly opposed Cantor, then a state delegate, when Cantor ran in 2000 for the Republican nomination in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District against state Sen. Stephen Martin. Cantor won by 263 votes, and Phillips’s group, the Faith and Family Alliance, used robo-calls and direct mail to question Cantor’s “values” and to describe Martin as the “only Christian” in
the race. For years, Phillips considered Cantor a political enemy (and Cantor felt the same way). Not anymore. Phillips told National Journal that many grassroots free-market conservatives—the ones wrestling for power within GOP state parties and at the national level—now view Cantor as their biggest ally at Republican leadership tables. “His actions have endeared him to the free-market movement,” Phillips said. “He’s come under withering fire, and a lot of people appreciate that.”

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Some of that fire has come from within House GOP ranks. Privately, many see Cantor’s actions as self-serving and shortsighted—cutting Boehner’s legs out from under him without warning or a larger strategic goal than his own self-promotion. On K Street, GOP-friendly lobbyists watched Cantor’s actions with dismay and went to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and asked him to intercede. Old-guard House Republicans and even some freshmen worried that the story line of a Cantor-Boehner split was creating an image of division that Democrats and Obama were able to exploit. They also fretted that Cantor’s stubborn opposition to tax increases made the party look petty and small in the eyes of independent voters—a sentiment now reflected in public polls showing a steady decline in the GOP’s standing the longer the debt crisis drags on (which is one reason the “grand bargain” has come back to life).

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Boehner wrapped his arm around Cantor last week to quiet the palace intrigue, a staged and somewhat awkward gesture that nevertheless seemed to do the trick. Now, Boehner and Cantor speak with one voice and attend all White House negotiations together. No more secret meetings between Obama and Boehner. On policy, it was never clear how committed Boehner was to the grand bargain.

Many GOP leadership sources say that Boehner shared Cantor’s antipathy. But Cantor has done far more to burnish his image as the voice of resistance, inviting interpretations that if he weren’t there, Boehner might cave in to Democratic demands. Those close to the speaker say he doesn’t take these maneuvers personally—Boehner remembers that he, too, was once a politician in a hurry who after only four years in Congress led the House GOP Conference under Speaker Newt Gingrich. But even Cantor’s fans say that the perceived leadership tug-of-war has weakened Boehner and complicated his ability to strike a debt-ceiling deal.

Which means that Cantor soon will face a moment of choosing. The Gang of Six plan is not a bill, hasn’t been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and is in limbo. Obama and Boehner are negotiating a $3 trillion deal built almost entirely around spending cuts. If this deal takes center stage, Cantor’s stock would soar higher. But if it falls to criticism from the left, the House might be faced with a take-it-or-leave it proposition centered on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan raising the ceiling, cutting spending by $1 trillion or more, and creating another deficit commission.

Video: Scarborough: Reid, Cantor ‘playing to lowest common denominator’ (on this page)

Most free-market conservatives oppose the McConnell plan, as do many rank-and-file Republicans. But as August 2 and the prospect of default draw closer, Boehner will have to decide whether to bring the McConnell plan to the floor for a vote. Boehner’s team said it will never move a bill that Cantor opposes. Can Cantor back the McConnell plan and start hunting for votes among skeptical rank-and-file Republicans and preserve his newfound fandom among conservative activists? “Any support of a McConnell-like abdication in the debt fight would be a defining moment in terms of credibility with conservatives,” Phillips said.

Since Cantor will need those conservatives to sustain any political move he makes, the choice is not just about default or the Mc-Connell plan. It’s about his political future.

The article, "Cantor's moment of choosing," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Rep. Cantor – the face of the opposition?

  1. Closed captioning of: Rep. Cantor – the face of the opposition?

    >>> the speaker and i have consistently been on the same page, and it's just as he laid out in terms of the principles that we are operating under. that our conference is behind that we're not going to raise the debt ceiling if we don't have cuts in excess, a that we don't want to raise taxes, and that we want to structurally change the system so that we stop this from happening again.

    >> welcome back to "hardball." reminds me of a p.o.w. saying something he can't believe. emerged at the lightning rod in debt negotiations right now and today's democrats made clear he's the villain. they've been waiting for alex and ron , let's talk about this, ron . democrats made clear cantor is not going to be the focus of their anger. got a name for their pain. shuck schumer and majority leader harry reid both today. let's listen.

    >> there's really only one person who has not made any concessions of all the eight, nine in that room, and that is majority leader cantor. he is basically standing in the way, and it's a shame. it's a shame.

    >> house majority leader eric cantor showing that he shouldn't even be table. and republicans agree he shouldn't be at the table. he walked out of the meeting with the vice president of the united states . how childish.

    >> these are getting personal. these commentaries right now. ron , to call somebody childish, he is younger than a lot of these other guys, but they don't just mean that.

    >> no. he's becoming a perfect face for republican incorrigibility around the tax issue and the sort of juvenile attitude that the tea party people are bringing to the fight. you've got to wonder with eric cantor , did he ever have a strategy going into these talks that would result in the debt ceiling being raised and him getting a good deal on spending cuts while giving up just a little on the revenue side? he doesn't seem to have had an end-game strategy. it seems to be his high cool yearbook page again. i want what i want when i want it.

    >> that's right. alex , that was apparently in his high school yearbook. the smart move, whether you're a dog day afternoon in a bank robbery , whatever, the barricade situation is never the one you want to be in. ultimately the barricade situation falls. you fall. never set up a barricade which looks like what he put himself into and the tea party .

    >> mcconnell's plan is evidence of how far off the rails this is. he's painted himself effectively into a corner.

    >> paint of picture of eric cantor . tell us about him.

    >> okay. first of all, constitutionally, a big comparison being made now is between the president and eric cantor . they are constitutionally as far off as two people could be. aside from the yearbook quote, eric cantor is notoriously partisan, brash, up and comer and remember in 2009 , this is the guy that circled the republicans and got them to vote against a bill. stimulus bill. not known as a party crossing, across the aisle bipartisan minded fellow in congress.

    >> he knows which way the wind is blowing in this party? he's smart?

    >> to some degree, powerful. got john boehner to walk back from a broader package. he yields influence because he's the face of the tea party .

    >> speaking for himself, told his version ever the event to reporter, saying the president stormed out of the meeting, his own meeting at the white house and cantor said, " obama , the way they talk answer the president, got agitated seemingly and sat there long enough and no other president, ronal reagan would sit there like this. this and that, he's reached the point something's got to give and he said to me, eric, don't call my bluff , i'm going to the american people with this". there you have it pap democratic aide rebutted that story saying for somebody that knows how to walk out of a meeting you think he'd know it when he saw it. re rutdly interrupted the president three times while the president was wrapping up the meeting. ron reagan two different accounts of the meeting pup one putsz the president in a good light. the other one is eric cantor putting himself in a very good light.

    >> well, the he said/he said situation. in this case you got to wonder. barack obama , the guy who pulled the trigger on the bin laden operation. the guy who pulled the trigger on the somali pirate operation when where they shot the hostage-taker in the head. is he really going sweat through his socks sitting across the table from eric cantor ? i think not. i trust his version much better than cantor's.

    >> i would also say, chris, this is what the white house is using. this is a great moment for the white house . obama setting aside the bin laden stuff, there's been this contention that obama 's bg weak, hasn't defined the issues, the marriage issue, can't establish his platform and here he is laying down the line with eric cantor .

    >> now you have the white house sort of embracing this narrative and even the fund-raising around it.

    >> remember, one guy is president of the united states having -- the other, congressman from richmond with no statewide potential. look at 9 interesting fight, you know, intramurals are more fun. making a shown of unity with eric cantor . like the al and tipper kiss, i guess. watch this thing and listen.

    >> allow me to say -- we have been in this fight together, and any suggestion that the role of eric has played in this meeting has been anything less than helpful is just wrong.

    >> well, that's called a cover-up, i think.

    >> i think john boehner 's probably feeling pretty good. at least a little better than he was feeling a few days or a week ago. at the end of the day , we don't know exactly what will happen, at the end of the day seems to me john boehner can go back to his people on the republican side and say i could have brought you unprecedented spending cuts that you liked, with just a little bit of revenue raising there on the side, and we could have solved this whole debt ceiling issue and lowered the deficit at the same time, but eric cantor blew it all up. and look what we've got now.

    >> your dad cut a deal with my boss, tip o'neill, you know. he cut the deal because he just lost an election and gave tip a good deal. and tip, a smart guy , my 340s boss, the speaker said, yeah. that's the difference between him and eric cantor . anyway, thank you very much. takes two sides, two sides to tango and they're not going to right. why these guys aren't pros yet. thank you, alex wagner, and up and coming pro and ron reagan .

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