Eric Cantor, GOP House majority leader, takes a starring role for Democrats

October 10, 2011

For months, as the fiscal wars in Washington have intensified, Democrats have been searching for their Republican version of Barack Obama — a political villain who will rile up their base and scare centrist swing voters to their side. After a series of trial-balloon auditions during the spring and summer, they settled on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as the man they want to cast as the face of GOP intransigence.

Cantor walked out of debt-ceiling talks with Vice President Biden. He tried to link disaster funding to spending cuts, even before the cleanup after Hurricane Irene began, and he has been the absolutist voice in leadership against any deal that involves new tax revenue.

“He, more than anyone else, has tied himself to the tea party. And the tea party is exceedingly unpopular with Democrats and independents,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He has become the face of Republican obstructionism.”

From fundraising pitches to presidential addresses, Cantor is the central character in a loosely coordinated effort to personify and demonize Republican efforts to upend President Obama and the Democratic agenda.

Democratic fundraising overtures warn of “the Boehner-Cantor takeover,” giving Cantor equal billing as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). In last month’s debate over disaster funding, Senate Democrats coined the term “Cantor Doctrine” to describe the majority leader’s effort to pair relief funds with offsetting spending cuts, and last week in Dallas, Obama accused Cantor of singularly blocking consideration of his jobs proposal. Obama invoked a teacher who he said would benefit from his plan.

“Mr. Cantor should come down to Dallas,” Obama said, and “tell her why she doesn’t deserve to get a paycheck again. Come tell her students why they don’t deserve to have their teacher back.”

Eventually, Democrats will have to turn their attention to the winner of the GOP presidential primary. But perhaps for the for­seeable future on Capitol Hill, they hope to use Cantor as a stand-in — and it is not a role Cantor minds playing.

“They are cementing Leader Cantor’s reputation as a defender of the free market, entrepreneurism and job creators, which is a clear contrast with President Obama’s plans for more government-stimulus spending and tax hikes on working families and small businesses,” said Laena Fallon, Cantor’s spokeswoman. “The president has handed Leader Cantor a national megaphone.”

Cantor’s embrace of that megaphone also points to the difficulty Democrats might confront in trying to elevate Cantor into the role of opposition lightning. He is not Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi.

In 1989, Republicans pushed then-Speaker Wright (D-Tex.) into retirement by bashing him for money he made from the publication of a book. Democrats returned the favor by forcing then-Speaker Gingrich (R-Ga.) from office in 1998. Over the past decade, Democrats made then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) their political bogeyman, and a year ago, Republicans made then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the focus of their successful campaign to win the House majority.

Elevating Cantor into that group will be a tall order, in part because he is not the top dog but a deputy to Boehner. Also, three of those four — Wright, Gingrich, DeLay — had ethical issues that sullied their reputations and made them easier targets.

The current majority leader has almost the opposite problem — he is more like the teacher’s pet who irritates everyone else. Also, Cantor isn’t a familiar enough figure to craft a national campaign around. Less than 40 percent of voters offered an opinion of him in late July, according to a CNN poll.

For those reasons, it could take years for Democrats to turn Cantor into the sort of political figure that can be featured in attack ads in battleground districts in the way that Democrats and Republicans used Gingrich and Pelosi. For now, Democrats hope their fixation on Cantor will pay dividends with liberal activists, thousands of whom received an e-mail pitch Monday from Israel’s DCCC asking for donations to help fight “out of touch Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor.”

Cantor’s starring role for Democrats is born of necessity. Without a presidential nominee for several more months, Republicans do not have a natural leader for Democratic strategists to focus their energy on, giving way to GOP congressional leaders as national party spokesmen.

Earlier this year, Democrats tried out Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — plain-spoken Midwesterners — and had some success demonizing Ryan’s Medicare proposals. Boehner has been an elusive target. In a speech last fall, Obama singled out the soon-to-be speaker nearly 10 times, but he neither electrifies conservatives nor incites rage among liberals.

Affable and prone to public crying, Boehner didn’t resonate with liberal activists in focus groups and polling, Democratic strategists said. He even played golf with Obama in June. Cantor doesn’t play golf, and it’s difficult to envision him socializing with Obama — however, he and Biden spoke Friday about setting up a dinner with their wives.

Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have tried to avoid taking the Democratic bait, because they had front-row seats for some of Gingrich’s self-inflicted wounds after 1994.

In Cantor, Democrats have found a character who enjoys the public jousting and is not afraid to pick a fight. In July, he counseled Boehner against a grand bargain on the debt-ceiling deal that would include increased tax revenue. In late August, after the East Coast earthquake that was centered in his district, he said disaster relief funds should have some form of accompanying offset cuts.

“Eric puts himself out there more,” Israel said.

Cantor’s jousting with Obama and Democratic leaders has earned him support among the conservative flank of the House Republican Conference.

However, he has his share of critics in the GOP caucus, who understand why he would be a Democratic target. Some of them wince at what they say is the majority leader’s penchant for getting ahead of Boehner in delivering the message.

“Eric’s not going out to pick these fights,” Fallon said, but his political imprint continues to grow.

When describing him, Cantor’s colleagues almost always mention his “work ethic” and “ambition.” The former is always the source of praise; the latter, less so. Some Republicans have lamented that Cantor’s focus always seems to be on how he takes the next step up the career ladder. Other critics say that, unlike Boehner, he often comes across as confrontational without being affable.

This week, two former Cantor aides are launching an independent group that can raise unlimited sums of money, both to assist GOP candidates and start their own issue campaigns. Although separate from GOP leadership, the new group’s issue ads will promote and defend policy initiatives from GOP leaders, indirectly helping Cantor fend off some of the attacks from Democrats and their liberal allies.

But Democrats say they are committed to laying the groundwork on Cantor for the months and years ahead.

“Elections are not won or lost based on a personality. They’re won or lost based on what the personality stands for, and for as long as Eric is the face of obstructionism, we’re going to be branding him,” Israel said.


Watch: Is it fair to demonize Eric Cantor and other political opponents? Is it effective?

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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