With new book, Cantor disavows power grab

Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; A19

When a book co-written by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hits newsstands this week touting the Republican Party's new leadership, readers might notice one man who is almost never mentioned: House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

But Boehner has had no complaint about the "Young Guns" book, the latest example of the high-profile tactics of Cantor, who is the No. 2 man in the House GOP behind Boehner. At the same time, Cantor has disavowed any ambitions to leapfrog Boehner if the GOP wins the House in November, saying in recent interviews, "I support John Boehner for speaker."

Such stances would not be surprising, except that Boehner and Cantor are known on Capitol Hill as men who, while politically linked, are not close, and at times have taken divergent approaches in their leadership in Congress.

But the two have stayed largely unified as Republicans approach this November's elections. Boehner, 60, is increasing his public role as the potential speaker, giving speeches on key policy issues and engaging more in a public back-and-forth with President Obama and congressional Democrats.

Cantor, 47, has mostly deferred to Boehner, but the pair tapped Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a close friend of Cantor's and one of the other authors of the book, to lead the development of the policy agenda Republicans will present to voters this month.

Of course, this Boehner-Cantor alliance could fray if Republicans win.

Four years ago, in the midst of the Democrats' victory celebration after that fall's elections, then-House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi backed one of her long-time allies, then-Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), over Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). (Hoyer, who was assumed to inherit the No. 2 position as House majority whip, easily defeated Murtha, and the Maryland lawmaker and Pelosi have generally worked closely together since then.)

Cantor and Boehner don't disagree on major issues; both are traditional Republicans who espouse smaller government and lower taxes. In sync with much of the 2010 GOP, they strongly oppose President Obama and prefer to talk about taxes and government instead of social issues like gay marriage.

Still, they are hardly a traditional pairing. The fast-talking Cantor, elected in 2000, has aggressively tried to define the Republican Party in the post-Bush era. Largely on his own, Cantor last year launched a group called the National Council for a New America that was intended to hold town halls and engage in a kind of GOP listening tour. (Plagued by Democratic accusations that the group violated congressional ethics rules, his council never took off.)

At the time, allies of the more laid-back Boehner, who was elected in 1990, privately groused that Cantor's ambition - even for a member of Congress - was a bit excessive.

Both men's staffs play down any tension. John Murray, Cantor's communications director, said Boehner and Cantor "work in lockstep" and "speak every day."

But the rise of the "tea party" and the growing opposition to Obama merged their approaches in many ways. Republican activists at tea party rallies have shown little desire to hear GOP ideas beyond opposition to Obama, and many of these activists say they don't want to follow the edicts of party leaders, but rather want Republicans in Congress to listen more to the public.

So instead of touting their own policy ideas, Republicans, led by Cantor and Boehner, this spring launched a program called "America Speaking Out" that created a Web site and town halls to solicit ideas from the public. And they kept their focus on attacking Obama.

With the new book, Cantor and his co-authors, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and McCarthy, will take the next step in trying to define themselves and other-40-something members of the GOP as "a new generation of conservative leaders"- which also is the subtitle of their book.

Still, when Republicans announce their fall agenda, they will be standing by Boehner.

"On almost any winning team, whether it is the Eagles rock band or the New York Yankees, there is going to be creative tension," said John Feehery, a former top GOP aide on Capitol Hill. "Boehner and Cantor don't have to love each other. They just have to win together."

Boehner on the trail

In a speech last week in Ohio, Obama mentioned Boehner a whopping eight times). Starting Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee will launch an ad on national cable stations that derides Boehner as unconcerned about creating middle-class jobs.

As the election nears, Democrats are increasingly trying to focus on the man who would be speaker.

Will it work?

The most obvious problem in the "Blame Boehner" strategy is that large swaths of the American public don't know who he is.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll this month, nearly four in 10 Americans didn't know enough about Boehner to offer an opinion of him.

But Democrats say defining Boehner helps illustrate the Democrats' main theme of turning the election less into a referendum on congressional Democrats and more of a choice between the visions of the two parties.

"Elections are about choices, and it is critical that we make clear that the Republican Party wants to return to the policies that created the economic crisis," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.

baconp@washpost.com Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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