Soon it was time for Cantor to go to Obama’s speech. As the House majority leader, it is traditionally part of his job to escort the president into the House chamber, and he headed to the speaker’s ceremonial office. There, he met Obama, who, as Cantor later recalled, tried to make small talk about the two men’s children. Cantor wouldn’t have it. “Ohhh, I hear you’re coming to Richmond tomorrow,” Cantor said. Obama replied with a comment about the weather, but Cantor kept needling. “You know, Mr. President, I’m not going to be able to be there, since we have votes,” he mock-apologized. “But I’ll be there after you.”
Cantor’s role as Obama’s nemesis, as the National Review recently dubbed him, is remarkable for several reasons—none more so than the fact that, although he’s now the darling of the tea party, he initially rose to power in Washington by standing for almost everything the tea party is against. Elected to Congress in 2000, right as House Republicans were entering their Caligula phase, Cantor was soon tapped by Roy Blunt, the House majority whip at the time, to serve as his chief deputy. According to a former Republican congressman, Cantor was given a seat at the GOP leadership table on the advice of Blunt’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, who was a Philip Morris lobbyist and who appreciated the fact that Cantor is Jewish. “Abigail was Jewish, and she understood the implications for fund-raising,” the former congressman says. “Eric had access to donors we didn’t typically have access to.”
Cantor’s primary job as a member of the whip operation was to cajole his fellow Republican congressmen into voting for many of the bills the tea-partiers now decry as the height of fiscal irresponsibility —including, most infamously, the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug legislation, for which he worked hand in hand with pharmaceutical-industry lobbyists and Karl Rove. “There were some of us who certainly wanted him to play a more forceful role there in fighting against that legislation rather than for it,” recalls Jeff Flake, an Arizona congressman and Cantor ally who was one of 25 House Republicans to vote against the bill.
When Cantor wasn’t whipping votes, he was spearheading Tom DeLay’s defense against an ethics complaint—or, as Cantor called it at the time, “trumped-up charges” that were “an attack on the conservative movement.” “It’s the final phase that Democrats are coming to grips that Republicans are a permanent majority,” he told one reporter. He was also connected to the now disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In 2003, Cantor—along with Blunt, DeLay, and House speaker Dennis Hastert—signed a letter to the Interior Department written at the behest of a Louisiana Indian tribe, an Abramoff client that was seeking to protect its gaming interests. That same year, Abramoff’s D.C. deli hosted a $500-a-plate fund-raiser for Cantor during which a tuna sandwich was named in honor of the Virginia congressman.
In early 2006, after Abramoff pleaded guilty to federal fraud and bribery charges, Cantor donated about $10,000 in political contributions he’d received from the lobbyist to a charity. This was par for the course for many congressmen at the time. But Cantor, unlike other House Republican leaders, went further. Although he never actually apologized for his past actions—“I wasn’t a senior member of leadership,” he says—he sensed that the tide was turning against House Republicans and that their permanent majority wasn’t so permanent after all. And so he began to reinvent himself as a reformer. The congressman who once defended DeLay was now one of the first House Republicans to call for an FBI investigation of Mark Foley. Having secured roughly $20 million in earmarks during his first three terms, he suddenly forswore them. And five days before the House GOP would lose its majority in the 2006 midterms, Cantor sat down with reporters and editors from Roll Call and called for his fellow Republicans to do some serious soul-searching: “Good Lord, you can’t just keep doing the things the way we’ve been doing them.”
When rank-and-file Republicans eventually came for the scalps of DeLay, Blunt, and Hastert, they left Cantor’s untouched. And he soon found new allies—namely California congressman Kevin McCarthy, who was elected to Congress in 2006, and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. They cast themselves as “a new generation of conservative leaders.” Ryan, a wonky backbencher on the budget committee, was “the thinker”; McCarthy, a gregarious backslapper, was “the strategist”; and Cantor was “the leader.” Together, they repeatedly lambasted the previous Republican majority for having lost its way and pledged to return the GOP to its small-government roots. By the time the Weekly Standard put the trio on its cover in October 2007 under the headline “Young Guns of the House GOP,” Cantor’s reinvention was complete. He was, as Fred Barnes’s accompanying article put it, “difficult to typecast as anything but a reform-minded conservative Republican.”