Eric Cantor Is the GOP's Rising Star to Rehabilitate the Party

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008


They surround Eric Cantor, these Democrats and liberals.

Here at home, there's his live-in mother-in-law with her Sierra Club membership and her baffling habit of hand-washing Ziploc bags -- "I don't know if that's an environment thing," the incoming Republican House whip and conservative bulwark wonders aloud, flashing a hint of a perfect smile. There's his wife, too, a fiscal conservative with her overwhelmingly Democratic family and her pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage views -- "We have a 'mixed marriage,' " Cantor observes.

On Capitol Hill, Cantor is in the minority twice over: He's the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and his party has lost so many seats to the Democrats that he talks of life in the political "wilderness." In those minority-party woods, Cantor searches for a way out, for a way to turn irrelevancy into relevancy.

He talks about creating a new kind of Republican conservative, one less concerned with ideology and more focused on practical solutions, more tech-savvy and less reflexively combative with Democrats, intolerant of ethical lapses and tolerant of new ideas. And especially one who communicates better to the middle class.

"Our message, of late, has been somewhat muddled," he says.

Conservatives, especially the young ones in the House, bunch behind him, following his lead, in part, because he is "a comer." The Capitol loves comers. But the 45-year-old Cantor rises to prominence at a difficult time for Republicans, making his search all the more challenging and urgent.

On his nightstand, Cantor heaps prescriptions for his ailing party: "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," by David Frum, formerly a speechwriter for President Bush; "The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. He pores over newspaper columns, he says, seeking wisdom "from the George Wills of the world, the Bill Kristols of the world, the Charles Krauthammers of the world."

"I'm very fixated on trying to determine what went wrong and how we can fix it," he says over toasted cheese sandwiches and tuna melts at a pharmacy diner here.

But the answers aren't easy to find.

He keeps looking.

"Nobody," he says, "is right on the money yet."

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