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Eric Cantor’s America

Cantor, far left, interjecting at a debt-limit discussion in the Cabinet Room this July.  

But Cantor, by all accounts, embraced the assignment. Meeting two to three days a week for hours at a time, the Biden talks were a wonky affair, with the participants poring over spreadsheets. As they discussed the intricacies of entitlement reform and closing tax loopholes, Cantor revealed himself to be less ideological than anyone had expected. “I think everybody was really pleasantly surprised by Cantor’s approach to this and how constructive he was during the process,” says an administration official who worked on the talks.

But while he didn’t speak the ­borderline-fanatical language of the tea party, Cantor channeled their recalcitrance. Throughout the talks, he refused to consider any revenue increases. He painted his position as pragmatic. “The arrival of the 87 freshmen has tended to shape what we can and can’t deliver in terms of a majority,” Cantor explains. “You’d have Baucus and you’d have Geithner say to me, ‘What are you giving up? Y’all need to do revenues.’ And I kept responding, ‘You don’t get it. This is an existential question for a fiscal conservative. Raising the credit limit allows for more spending, all right? That’s the deal here, so it is a big deal for us to be voting for this.’ ”

Of course, Cantor’s supposed pragmatism afforded him a substantial ideological advantage. “You don’t get a free pass because of your Luddites,” Biden told Cantor at one point. But that’s exactly what Cantor was able to create for himself and the GOP, successfully transforming the intransigence of a rump faction into an insurmountable roadblock. “The question for Cantor was whether he wanted to take the lead on convincing elements of his caucus to make some compromises,” says one Democratic congressman. “But Cantor was less interested in leading than following.” In retrospect, it’s clear that Cantor wasn’t following—he was outwitting.

By late June, the Biden talks had identified around $2 trillion in cuts, but Cantor’s hard line on revenues was becoming a bigger sore spot in the discussions. At the end of an ­unusually acrimonious meeting on a Wednesday afternoon, Cantor approached Biden in the hallway to talk about whether the group had run its course. The vice-president said he thought that it had only one or two more sessions left. Besides, Biden told Cantor, now that Boehner and Obama were negotiating directly—and would be meeting that night, in fact—it didn’t make sense to keep the group going much longer. This, it turns out, was news to Cantor. Boehner had kept his direct talks with the president a secret. Cantor, blindsided, announced the next morning that he was dropping out of the talks.

Over the next few weeks, Boehner and Obama continued to negotiate their grand bargain—and the Boehner-Cantor relationship became more fraught. In early July, when the president and the speaker presented the outlines of their $4 trillion tentative deal to congressional leaders at a White House meeting, Cantor balked at the revenue increases, saying there was no way the GOP conference would vote for them. Two days later, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial blasting the proposed “grand bargain”—the details of which, many on the Hill believe but Dayspring denies, were leaked to the Journal by Cantor—and Boehner was facing an open rebellion by the freshmen and other conservative members of his caucus. Later that day, Boehner told Obama that the deal was off.

It’s conventional wisdom in Washington that Cantor lusts after Boehner’s job and is constantly scheming for ways to take it. “The problem comes in when you have your No. 2 guy more interested in the political ramifications of all this,” one anonymous congressional Republican told Politico in July. “You don’t have to be very bright to figure out what in the hell [Cantor] is doing.” Cantor, naturally, disputes this. “Listen, everybody writes that I want to be speaker,” he told me during one of our conversations. “Well, that’s news to me.”

That’s almost certainly a lie. But it would be a mistake to assume that Cantor wants to be speaker at any cost—or even any time soon. Although he’s clearly ambitious, Cantor has also repeatedly displayed a cautious streak over the years. Several times during his congressional career, he’s been urged to mount a challenge against the person above him on the leadership ladder—first Roy Blunt, now Boehner. Each time he’s taken a pass, surely realizing that, in internal House politics, attempted coups usually end in murder-suicides. “Nine times out of ten, Cantor will choose to outwork somebody rather than knife him,” says one Republican congressman.

Cantor loyalists insist that his actions during the debt-ceiling negotiations were an attempt to help Boehner, not undermine him. “Eric was trying to save Boehner from himself,” says one congressman close to Cantor. Had Boehner agreed to a grand bargain with Obama, it would have sparked a revolt inside the GOP conference. As next in line—or “the conscience of the conference,” in the words of Colorado freshman Cory Gardner—Cantor would have been under tremendous pressure to challenge Boehner for the speakership. Some Cantor allies believe he could have won such a challenge. But the ill will that would have resulted from Boehner’s defenestration might have doomed a Cantor speakership from the outset. “Eric doesn’t want a Pyrrhic victory,” says one congressman close to Cantor. “He wants Boehner to have a successful speakership, which would maintain a Republican majority and give Eric the opportunity to become speaker down the road. And Eric is young enough to wait for that.”