Washington Sketch: Eric Cantor Tries a Civil Approach to the Health-Care Debate

Yes, that was Eric Cantor saying, "Stop the revival stuff and let's talk."
Yes, that was Eric Cantor saying, "Stop the revival stuff and let's talk." (By Alexa Welch Edlund -- Richmond Times-dispatch)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

RICHMOND, Sept. 21 The remarkable thing about House Republican Whip Eric Cantor's town hall meeting here Monday is what didn't happen.

No talk of death panels. No complaints about illegal immigrants. Nothing about killing Grandma, no mention of socialism, nobody calling anybody a Nazi. And at no point during the 90-minute forum on health care did Cantor, or anybody else, call President Obama a liar.

The Richmond area lawmaker wouldn't have had any trouble riling up the people in the audience, many of whom wore "Tea Party" or "9-12 Project" T-shirts. But "what use is that?" he said after the session. In fact, he came away with some advice for his colleagues: "Stop the revival stuff and let's talk."

This is a rather recent sentiment for the No. 2 House Republican, who has been leading opposition to the Obama health plan and participating in anti-Obamacare political rallies. But his attempt to calm the anger, coming on the final day of a summer of hot rhetoric, represents an interesting calculation.

"All of us know the ascendancy of our party is going to be premised on whether people really believe that we're deserving of leadership again," he explained, "not that we're just here throwing bombs or obstructing, that we're thoughtful, responsible."

Was this the same Eric Cantor who was shown using his BlackBerry during Obama's speech to Congress? The same one who, on Fox News after the speech, accused Obama of using a "smoke screen" and "hyperbole" and lacking "some adult sense of responsibility"? The very same Cantor who, in the National Review last week, urged Obama to "read the bill" and again raised the problem of illegal immigrants?

Knowing that background, and hearing Cantor's conciliatory tone on Monday, one may have been tempted to send a choice accusation Cantor's way: You lie!

"I felt like pulling a Joe Wilson many times," Cantor constituent Joe Cacciotti complained after the event. Cacciotti, a conservative who got to ask the first question, tried to start things off by demanding to know why Cantor "refused or ignored our requests" to hold a town hall meeting earlier in the summer.

"We are here today to talk about health care," Cantor reminded him.

"It's not a town hall meeting," Cacciotti interrupted. The session, hosted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was technically called a "Public Square."

"We are here to try to understand where the two sides are, to be able to bridge those differences," Cantor continued.

"Well, I wanted a town hall meeting," Cacciotti retorted.

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