Having sufficiently cleansed himself of past sins, Cantor, with his finely tuned political radar, then picked up on—and, in turn, helped initiate—what has become the Republican Party’s most profound cultural shift: its belligerent intransigence. Cantor, as one prominent Republican told me, “is not a tea-party guy. He’s a business guy, a business Republican.” But he has managed to successfully elide this difference and, perhaps more than any other Republican in Congress, has politically positioned himself to take advantage of the GOP’s new obstructionist ethos. “Cantor comes from the more contemporary [Republican] school that says cooperation is a dirty word and compromise is an unpardonable sin,” says Obama adviser David Axelrod. “I think he’s a very ambitious guy who’s reading the direction of the Republican Party, and he’s trying to ride that wave.”
A few weeks after Obama won the White House, Cantor was elected House minority whip, the No. 2 seat at the Republican leadership table. The timing was not particularly auspicious. “It sucked,” Cantor says. “It was not a nice time to be around here. Faces were long, and people were upset.” With Obama’s approval rating up near the seventies, the question confronting Cantor and other Republican leaders was not whether the new president would be able to enact his ambitious stimulus package (given Democratic control of Congress, its passage was a foregone conclusion) but how many GOP votes he would get for it. Some in the GOP—including, according to several sources, Minority Leader John Boehner—were fearful almost to the point of resignation that they would lose a sizable number of House Republicans. That’s when Cantor made a decision that has set the tone for American politics ever since: He made it his mission to deny Obama any Republican votes for the stimulus.
The first thing he did was commission a national poll to show fellow Republican congressmen that while Obama was personally popular, his policies were not. Then he assembled what he called the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group to come up with an alternative stimulus package. The group’s plan was larded with tax cuts that would make it a nonstarter for Obama, but the president’s expected rejection was part of the plan. “If we were going to oppose it,” Cantor says now of Obama’s stimulus package, “our members needed to be able to go home to their districts and say to the Rotary Club or their Chamber of Commerce that it’s not just ‘no’ but that we have our own way of doing it.”
Once Obama unveiled his own nearly $1 trillion stimulus package, Cantor went to work picking it apart piece by piece in the press. He realized—in a way that previous minority whips didn’t—that an essential part of his job was messaging. “The notion that a minority is going to be pushing pieces of legislation through the House is ludicrous,” explains John Murray. “So we needed to be communicating, and doing it very aggressively.” Working from a windowless office in the Capitol, three Cantor communication staffers ran a campaign-style war room that was devoted to finding the porkiest or most controversial pieces of Obama’s stimulus bill—from the $200 million to be spent in part on resodding the National Mall to the provision that devoted millions of dollars to family-planning initiatives—and then turning them into Drudge links and Fox News hits. Democrats ultimately wound up dropping a number of those provisions from the legislation, but it didn’t matter. When the bill passed the house eight days after Obama’s inauguration, it did so without a single House GOP vote.
That lockstep unity would carry over to future votes, including, most significantly, health-care reform. And while Obama chalked up some impressive legislative victories, he was unable to deliver on one of the fundamental promises of his presidential campaign: that he would change Washington and usher in a new era of bipartisanship. “I sat back after the stimulus vote and said, ‘We’ve really come together as a [Republican] conference,” recalls McCarthy, who was then Cantor’s chief deputy whip. “That’s when I knew we would win the majority. And I give Eric the majority of all the credit for making that happen.”
Since the 2010 election, of course, Cantor has had a much more lethal weapon at his disposal, one that he played a major role in creating: the 87 freshmen who make up more than a third of the Republican’s House majority. In the run-up to the midterms, Cantor, along with McCarthy and Ryan, used their “Young Guns” candidate-recruitment program to find Republicans who could capitalize on the growing tea-party backlash against Obama and Washington. “We wanted to bring ‘cause’ people to Congress,” says Ryan, “not people who were looking for political careers.”