The last time Congressional Republicans were this out of power, they turned to a college professor from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, to lead the opposition, first against President Bill Clinton in a budget battle in 1993, and then back into the majority the following year.
As Republicans confronted President Obama in another budget battle last week, their leadership included another new face: Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who as the party’s chief vote wrangler is as responsible as anyone for the tough line the party has taken in this first legislative standoff with Mr. Obama. This battle has vaulted Mr. Cantor to the front lines of his party as it tries to recover from the losses of November.
As Republican whip, Mr. Cantor succeeded again on Friday in denying the White House the support of a single House Republican on the stimulus bill. That was a calculated challenge to the president, who, in his weekly address on Saturday, hailed the bill as “an ambitious plan at a time we badly need it.”
Mr. Cantor said he had studied Mr. Gingrich’s years in power and had been in regular touch with him as he sought to help his party find the right tone and message. Indeed, one of Mr. Gingrich’s leading victories in unifying his caucus against Mr. Clinton’s package of tax increases to balance the budget in 1993 has been echoed in the events of the last few weeks.
“I talk to Newt on a regular basis because he was in the position that we are in: in the extreme minority,” he said.
The Republicans can certainly count some victories, although symbolic ones. Even White House aides said Mr. Cantor and his team had been successful in seizing on spending items in the stimulus bill to sow doubts about it with the public.
The fact that House Republicans have stood firm against Mr. Obama suggests just how unified the caucus is, though Mr. Gingrich, in an interview, said Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, did more to unify Republicans than anything Republicans did.
“I’d like to tell you Cantor did a brilliant job, but the truth is that Pelosi and Obey pushed the members into his arms,” Mr. Gingrich said. But, he added, “They have been good at developing alternatives so they don’t leave their guys out there chanting no.”
The Republican Party is arguably weaker today than it was in 1993, given Mr. Obama’s popularity and the enormous weight Republicans are carrying after eight years under President George W. Bush. Even as Mr. Cantor was urging Republicans to oppose Mr. Obama on this signature plan, he offered praise of the president, suggesting that Republicans should be careful to avoid being labeled obstructionist.
“I think people out there across the country elected this president because he inspired the notion that we can change,” he said. “Not to be so trite as to invoke his campaign slogan, but I do think there was some substance behind it in terms of what people thought in voting for him.
“Banking off that mood of the country right now, I think it’s incumbent upon us to reach out to him and see if we can work together.”
Increasingly conservative caucus
Mr. Cantor, along with the House minority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, faces the challenge of trying to lead a shrinking and increasingly conservative caucus. The party also faces the burden of trying to advance what Mr. Cantor describes as its bedrock value — smaller government — in the face of considerable evidence that the American public wants an increasingly active government to deal with the economic crisis.
And it is Mr. Cantor who is pushing the party in a direction that Democrats, and some Republicans, say is risky: almost lock-step opposition to Mr. Obama’s economic plan. Democrats have already made clear that they intend to use those votes against Republicans in 2010, and sooner, with advertisements noting the middle-class tax cuts included in the bill.
Mr. Cantor’s increasing prominence is in many ways a reminder of the difficult time the party faces after losing the presidential election and in the absence of any high-profile Republican leaders in the House or the Senate. Mr. Boehner routinely defers to him at news conferences, reflecting the concern of Republicans that they put forward new and relatively young faces. (Mr. Cantor is 45, but looks younger.)
Mr. Cantor, who has exhibited an eye for winning attention, has rushed in to fill the leadership vacuum with a daily diet of news conferences, interviews, speeches on the House floor and television appearances. “ALERT: Cantor Holds Economic Recovery Roundtable,” a news release from his office announced, in describing an economic forum he will hold on Wall Street this week.
He is the only Jewish Republican in the House. This has created a thoroughly unlikely circumstance for the Republican Party, given that its other most prominent face these days is the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, the first African-American to hold the post.
Mr. Cantor, who grew up in Richmond, is soft-spoken with a whisper of a Southern accent. A lawyer, he served in the Virginia House of Delegates before being elected to Congress in 2000, filling the seat once held by James Madison, as he likes to remind people.
In discussing the Republican defeat, he said: “I don’t think it was an outright rejection of what I call common sense conservative principles. And as a Virginian, holding James Madison’s seat, I don’t think it was a rejection of the principles upon which this country was built.”
Mr. Cantor is certainly different from Mr. Gingrich in some significant ways. “He’s not Newt — giving off sparks every 15 seconds,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax reform, an influential conservative group. “While I never bought the criticism of Newt that being an ideas factory meant he suffered from A.D.D. — I think it was an unfair rap on him — to his advantage, Cantor is seen as both an ideas person and steady and stable.”
Beyond that, friends of both say that Mr. Gingrich is more intellectually adventurous than Mr. Cantor, but also more prone to overreach.
“I would say my manner is such that it would seem to be a little more demure,” Mr. Cantor said.
Demure or not, Mr. Cantor’s press secretary was forced to apologize last week after e-mailing to a reporter a video filled with vulgar language making fun of labor unions, in response to an advertisement from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees pressing Republicans to support the Obama plan.
Mr. Cantor acknowledged that Mr. Obama had won points from the public for appearing less partisan than Republicans in this battle, but he warned that the president should not draw the wrong lesson.
“I think it would be short-sighted for him to take away from a zero vote that he shouldn’t even mess with us anymore,” he said.
This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.