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Eric Cantor’s America

South Carolina congressman and tea-party freshman Tim Scott  

Cantor rarely socializes with his colleagues, and since he doesn’t golf or fish or have any hobbies, when he does find himself in social situations, he usually talks about work. “You’d get a lot of ‘Eric’s no fun,’ ” recalls a former House colleague who tried to include Cantor in group dinners; as it turned out, Cantor usually declined the invitations anyway.

Some veteran GOP lawmakers find Cantor’s coddling of the freshmen irritating. “I don’t know how—or why—Eric puts up with them,” one told me. And certainly there is no love lost between Cantor and Boehner. The golf-loving, wine-drinking, chain-smoking Boehner is said to consider Cantor to be a grind and a killjoy. Meanwhile, Cantor and especially his wife are known to have concerns over his secondhand-smoke exposure. “The most important person in the Republican caucus,” jokes one prominent Democrat, “is neither Boehner nor Cantor but the official food taster.”

As for those ideologically opposed to Cantor, they dislike him with an intensity that surpasses the usual partisanship—they accuse him of acting in bad faith. Some recall an episode from this past January, when, in a supposed gesture of bipartisanship, Cantor invited Nancy Pelosi to sit with him at the State of the Union. The problem was, he offered the invitation less than 24 hours before the speech, and through reporters. Pelosi had already arranged to sit with another Republican, and when she turned down Cantor’s invite, it led to headlines like “Pelosi Spurns Cantor on Seating.” Others remember how, after repeatedly rejecting Democratic congressman Steny Hoyer’s efforts to work on health-care-reform legislation, Cantor approached Hoyer for a meeting mere weeks before House Democrats were set to bring their bill to the floor—and then, after presenting Hoyer with a set of proposals like tort reform and “association health plans” that had long been anathema to Democrats, complained to reporters that Hoyer had rebuffed his efforts at bipartisanship. “It was unbelievable that he’d conduct himself in such a transparent way to set up a press story,” says one senior Democratic aide.

But Cantor has realized that, in Washington these days, being liked is not a substantial advantage. Much better to be deemed so unreasonable that your opponents ultimately feel no choice but to bend to your will. This was never truer than during the debt-ceiling fight. Although a number of the freshmen had said during the run-up to the 2010 elections that they would not vote to raise the nation’s debt limit, many House Republicans, who knew the calamity that would unfold if the nation did default, seemed to believe those were just empty campaign promises. “This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment” for the new GOP majority, Boehner told The New Yorkerthis past December. “You can underline ‘adult.’ And for people who’ve never been in politics it’s going to be one of those growing moments … [W]e’ll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn’t do it.”

Cantor was just as committed to avoiding default as the speaker (if for no other reason than his long-standing ties to Wall Street), but he also knew that the freshmen—and the GOP, by extension—would be more powerful if they avoided the Establishment grooming lessons Boehner appeared to be recommending. In early January, at a closed-door retreat for the GOP caucus in Baltimore, Cantor gave a speech trying to reframe the debt ceiling as “a leverage moment” over Obama. “I made the point that, look, this is an opportunity for us because we are in essence a blocking minority in Washington,” he told me. “We control half of one-third of government, and so we can for sure block bad things from happening legislatively. But it’s hard when you are in the majority in just the House to try and proffer and accomplish the kinds of things you want if the other side is not going to go along with it. And it’s hard to even start to compromise or find some points of agreement when you’re in this kind of supercharged political environment. So I looked at, What is really must-pass? What is it that’s going to have to see the House joining with the president and the Senate to get something done?”

Boehner eventually came around to Cantor’s way of thinking and, in a May speech to the Economic Club of New York, he spelled out exactly how the House Republicans intended to use their leverage: In exchange for voting to raise the debt ceiling, they’d require over $2 trillion in deficit reduction, all in the form of spending cuts and reforms. The previous month, Boehner tapped Cantor to represent House Republicans at bipartisan, bicameral deficit-reduction talks being led by Joe Biden. The move was widely viewed in Washington as an effort by the speaker to make sure that, unlike with the budget agreement of the previous month, his No. 2 had his fingerprints on any debt deal—and would catch some of the flak if the GOP caucus, especially the freshmen, ultimately turned against it.