At Republican convention, Eric Cantor stays in the background

August 29, 2012

The book’s title was bold, and its authors intended to outline a bold future.

As “Young Guns” went on sale two years ago, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took center stage on its cover, with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in the foreground of the iconic photo taken on a Capitol balcony. More toward the back was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the policy wonk whose star had yet to shine as brightly as those of his two 40-something friends.

Yet on Wednesday night, as Ryan strode to the podium to accept the Republican Party’s vice presidential nomination, his two longtime friends were far from the stage. They were in a suite overhead at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, watching as Ryan moved into an undisputed role: top gun among the Young Guns and a future leader of the GOP. His biggest asset? Boldness.

Cantor, once whispered about as a potential Mitt Romney running mate, is in the background this week at the Republican National Convention, where the focus has been on touting governors and female politicians to try to expand the party’s appeal. His allies and advisers say that is fine with Cantor, who is genuinely excited for his close friend Ryan. But his role out of the spotlight follows a finely designed effort in Cantor’s camp to reshape his image, which was battered throughout 2011, his first year as House majority leader.

Last fall, President Obama began singling out Cantor by name on the stump for his opposition to any increase in taxes. Democrats openly said that their game plan was to make Cantor “the face of Republican obstructionism,” hoping he would become an unpopular symbol of an unpopular Congress, the same way Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did during their runs as House speaker.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a close ally of Cantor’s, called the Democratic effort “Chicago-style politics at its worst” and said the majority leader has a long-term plan for how to push his conservative vision.

“He’s not going to let attacks from Obama or anyone else deter him,” Bolling said, noting that Cantor’s role in a Romney-Ryan administration would be that of a confidant implementing the agenda on Capitol Hill. “I think he would be one of the go-to guys, no doubt about that.”

What’s his next move?

This has meant tamping down talk of what Cantor wants to do next, something that several years ago became a running parlor game on Capitol Hill. His name was floated for vice president, Virginia governor, senator and House speaker, creating an image of someone who was hardworking but who was seemingly always angling for the next move.

Some in Cantor’s camp say they do not know where his long-term interest lies, and several suggest that he does not aspire to become House speaker. Instead, his focus for now is on retaining the GOP majority in the House, helping Romney defeat Obama and aiding Republicans in taking control of the Senate. The latter two goals involve bringing the Old Dominion in for Romney and helping George Allen in his Senate bid.

“I can tell you he is committed 100 percent to getting us to a balanced budget and full employment,” said Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.), a freshman from a district that abuts Cantor’s Richmond-based district.

Democrats don’t buy that anything has changed; they say media attention has merely shifted away from the Capitol to the presidential ticket. “He is still as much the face of obstruction as he was a year ago,” said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Aside from missives about Romney and Ryan, Cantor still brings in the highest-dollar return when the DCCC sends out fundraising appeals.

Democrats are betting that once the election is over and Congress tackles the looming “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and automatic spending reductions, Cantor’s actions will resemble those of 2011, when the House and the White House went to war over the debt and spending cuts.

Democrats think the reason Cantor is not on the GOP convention stage this week is that his image took such a hit, Romney doesn’t want him as part of the message. “Stay tuned to watch for his speech at the convention,” Ferguson said mockingly.

A change in tone

Last year, Cantor led Republicans during talks with Vice President Biden that tried to reach more than $2 trillion in spending cuts as part of a deal to raise the Treasury’s borrowing limit. But he abandoned those talks when House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) began separate negotiations with Obama for a potential deal twice as large. Eventually, Cantor counseled Boehner against a “grand bargain” that would include more than $1 trillion in new tax revenue, believing that conservatives in the House would object.

As the calendar turned to 2012, the congressional agenda was not as much of a high-wire act, and Cantor tried to be less of a lightning rod. He focused on smaller, more bipartisan efforts, such as a bill to clarify insider-trading laws and legislation to make it easier for small businesses to gain access to capital investments. After some partisan squabbling, both bills passed with strong bipartisan support and were signed by Obama.

In addition, Boehner and Cantor set out to tone down the infighting. Top staff members for both leaders met in January to bury the hatchet from a rough 2011. Staff changes in both offices, with some senior aides becoming outside political advisers, have also led to a much better day-to-day relationship in the Capitol, according to advisers in both camps.

It was Boehner who invited Cantor and McCarthy to watch Ryan’s address in his suite at the convention, and the speaker heaped praise on Cantor when he stopped by the Virginia delegation Wednesday morning, insisting that this particular young gun has not fallen silent.

“Eric Cantor and I are partners, and I’m telling you what, you’ll see us tonight sitting together listening to Paul Ryan’s speech. He’s been a great partner through this last year and a half, and he’ll be a great partner for a long time to come,” Boehner said.

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