Dana Milbank
Opinion writer July 12, 2011

Eric Cantor has perfected the strategic sneer.

It comes, frequently, when he answers a reporter’s question about something President Obama has said: The House majority leader’s lip curls up on the left side and a look of disgust washes over his face. This week, he has been coupling the sneer with lines such as:

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

“How in the world can you even accept that notion?”

And, “That is laughable on its face.”

And, “That doesn’t make sense. . . . That again is just nonsensical.”

And, “Come on — let us think about this.”

Cantor, who is establishing himself as the lead GOP negotiator with the White House as the Aug. 2 default deadline approaches, is answering calls for compromise with contempt. He shook his fist during a news conference Tuesday and said that Obama’s thinking is “unfathomable to me.” To Obama’s complaint that the wealthy are not sharing in the budget sacrifice, he scoffed: “There is plenty of so-called shared sacrifice.” Asked about Obama’s belief that people like him should pay more in taxes, Cantor retorts: “You know what? He can write a check any time he wants.”

He draws out the vowels in a style that is part southern, part smarty-pants. Had young Cantor spoken like this at his prep school in Richmond, the bigger boys may well have wiped that sneer off his face. Yet even then, Cantor was accustomed to having things his way. According to Cantor’s hometown Richmond Times-Dispatch, the quotation he chose to accompany his yearbook photo was “I want what I want when I want it.”

What Cantor wants now is power — and he is prepared to risk the full faith and credit of the United States to get it. In a primacy struggle with House Speaker John Boehner, he has done a deft job of aligning himself with Tea Party House members in opposition to any meaningful deal to resolve the debt. If the U.S. government defaults, it will have much to do with Cantor.

He pulled out of debt-limit talks with Vice President Biden. He shot down the outline of a compromise that Boehner attempted to negotiate. Now Cantor has essentially taken over talks with the White House, and he has tamped down any hint of conciliation.

On Monday, Boehner hinted that he could accept a tax-reform deal that brought “additional revenues to the federal government” — and his spokesman confirmed that the proposal would be “scored” by the Congressional Budget Office as increasing tax revenue. But Cantor was having none of it: “We are not raising taxes, so it has to be net revenue neutral.”

Cantor’s aides say he is merely reflecting his caucus. But Cantor, a veteran of a decade in the Capitol, surely knows that he is jettisoning the last chance in the next couple of years to make a serious dent in the national debt. The White House has so far offered up a tantalizing array of concessions — $4 trillion in budget cuts and overhauls of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – but Cantor has yet to offer anything but sneers.

He flashed the trademark facial expression even before taking his seat at a Monday news conference. Asked whether he would offer any concessions, Cantor responded by saying that the cuts he demanded from the White House were in fact concessions by him, too. “Nobody relishes the opportunity to go and cut these programs,” said the creator of the YouCut Web site that made budget-cutting into an online game. Cantor further said that it was a concession merely to avoid a government default.

The search for a Cantor concession continued. “In terms of shared sacrifice across the country, do you see that one as necessary?”

Cantor swung his arm over his chair back and raised his upper lip. “I think behind this notion of ‘We want shared sacrifice’ that they continue to say means, ‘We want to raise taxes,’ ” he said.

Claiming that there have been “concessions made already” by his side, Cantor was pressed to name some of them. “I don’t want to get into specifics now,” he said.

Leaving a House Republican caucus meeting Tuesday morning, Cantor approached the microphones, flashed the cameras a good-morning sneer and demanded to know “why in the world” Obama wants to increase taxes.

NBC’s Luke Russert asked what “sacred cows” Cantor would be willing to sacrifice. Cantor repeated his denunciation of Obama’s tax policy.

“Where do the Republicans feel pain here, though?” Russert persisted.

After a long and contemptuous day, the majority leader probably feels it most in his upper lip.

danamilbank@washpost.com