Dana Milbank: Eric Cantor’s empty happy talk

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer February 5, 2013

Republicans have happened upon a felicitous new strategy for reviving their party from its depressed state: They need only think happy thoughts.

At a retreat for Republican leaders last month, former House speaker Newt Gingrich told them to “learn to be a happy party” and a “cheerful” one, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said they should be a party “that smiles.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told his fellow Republicans to talk about “just how incredibly bright America’s future can be.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

In other words, Republicans will win elections if only they can stop being so dour, dammit.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took this don’t­worry-be-happy strategy seriously, and in a heavily promoted “major” speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday afternoon, he let the sun shine in.

He began with an uplifting anecdote about the Wright brothers and quoted the inspirational words of Emma Lazarus. He spoke from a lectern decorated with a foam board carrying the slogan “Making life work for more people” and brought with him some everyday folks to illustrate his upbeat philosophy, including an African American father who found a better education for his children and a girl doing well in her battle with cancer.

The House majority will pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans,” Cantor proclaimed. He also read a Thomas Jefferson quotation on “ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.”

The conservative think tank’s president, Arthur Brooks, was in on the act. He introduced Cantor as a man who “cares about freedom and opportunity because he knows they lead to a happier, more prosperous life.”

But the sunny routine was a difficult one for Cantor, who has made a career in Washington of being testy and acidic. His delivery was forced and, as he read his text, he seemed to be reminding himself to grin. As a result, he scowled for much of the speech and sounded as though he were spitting out his words. Smiles formed at inopportune times, such as when he described a boy’s failure in public school.

When it came to what his party would do to make people so buoyant and uplifted, Cantor had little beyond the policies he and his colleagues have long offered. The first questioner asked whether anything in Cantor’s lengthy speech would “be incorporated in legislation.” Cantor demurred. “I will say we do intend to follow up with some policy proposals and legislation working with our committees to move forward on many, many of these issues,” he said.

The next questioner asked about the bipartisan Senate proposal, unveiled last week, that would break the deadlock on immigration reform. “I have not looked at the details of what the Senate has put out,” he answered.

In recent weeks, Republican leaders such as Cantor have resembled nothing so much as laundry detergent salesmen, figuring if they can simply rebrand their product (High Efficiency 2x Ultra Stainlifter Clean Breeze Concentrated Fresh!) Americans will buy what they’re selling. Omitted from consideration is the possibility that consumers don’t like what’s in the bottle. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said Sunday that voters “don’t understand the conservative message.” Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, said Republicans need only “do a better job of applying our principles.”

Cantor picked up this theme Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying Republicans haven’t “completed the sentence, which is, we’re trying to do this to help people.”

Problem is, the optimistic talk collides with grim realities. Cantor spoke Tuesday about Lady Liberty lifting her “lamp beside the golden door,” but he was noncommittal on the comprehensive immigration reforms drafted by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He spoke about how “many of today’s cures and lifesaving treatments are a result of an initial federal investment” without mentioning that the House Republicans’ budgets would decimate medical research.

Cantor spoke about how health care “always worries parents most.” But he continued to advocate the repeal of Obamacare, even though Ohio’s conservative governor, John Kasich, on Monday became the fifth Republican governor to embrace the law’s Medicaid expansion.

One questioner, Eric Pianin from the Fiscal Times, pointed out the conflicting messages and asked, “Who really speaks for the Republican Party?”

Cantor didn’t hesitate. “The average American is not thinking about and trying to wonder about where the Republican Party is,” he said.

Cantor might heed his own advice: Americans don’t care about Republicans’ happy talk. They want happy results.

Twitter: @milbank

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