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Eric Cantor’s America

Cantor’s waiting game has been made easier, for now, by the fact that he emerged from the debt-ceiling fight with the upper hand: The final deal reflected his hard line against tax increases, and Boehner is now in lockstep with that strategy. The speaker tapped Jeb Hensarling, a conservative Texas congressman and a Cantor ally, to serve as the GOP’s co-chair on the bipartisan super-committee whose deficit-­reduction recommendations are due at the end of November. And two weeks ago Boehner declared that those reductions should come only in the form of spending cuts and entitlement reforms, not tax increases. “I don’t think that the differences we have with the president are going to be solved before the election,” Cantor told me. “And I don’t know if John Boehner really thinks that they can, either.”

When Obama’s jobs speech was over, Cantor headed to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, which, following presidential addresses, morphs into a giant spin room. Dayspring had already e-mailed his boss some talking points: “Encouraged w/president’s renewed focus on jobs … Good people can disagree, but they don’t have to disagree on everything.” Now, as Cantor visited the stations of the cable-news cross, he tried to strike those conciliatory notes. “I heard a lot of things in the president’s speech tonight that I think both sides can agree on,” he told CNBC.

But away from the cameras, Cantor was far more disparaging. As he rode in an SUV to the Fox News studios, where he was scheduled to appear on The Sean Hannity Show, Cantor regaled his aides with the smack he’d talked to Obama.

“Seriously, did you bring up Richmond?” Dayspring asked.

“Oh, I did,” Cantor boasted.

As for the speech itself, Cantor complained, “How does it make it easier when he’s like, ‘This is my package, pass this bill! And if you don’t, I’m going to tell the people across the country.’ It’s almost like when he said ‘Call my bluff.’ He said, ‘I’m gonna take it to the American people.’ I’m like, Where’s the chip there?

Sure enough, in the coming weeks, Cantor and other Republican leaders would back away from any hints of compromise as they sharpened their attacks on Obama’s jobs package. Obama, meanwhile, presented a deficit-reduction plan that offered the GOP far less than what he’d been prepared to give Boehner during the debt-ceiling negotiations. And in late September, it took multiple votes and desperate negotiations for Congress to pass a routine spending bill to keep the federal government from shutting down at the end of the month. For all the fierce urgency of now, it became painfully clear that Republicans and now even Democrats had retreated to their partisan trenches and that nothing would get done in Washington until after November of the next year—if even then.

Now sitting inside the Fox studio, a makeup artist dabbed at Cantor’s face. “You’re nice and tan here,” she told him.

“A couple weeks ago, I was in Israel,” Cantor replied, making small talk about a trip he led there of 56 Republican members during the August recess.

“A lot of them told me they went,” she cooed. “They said it was great.”

When his makeup was done, Cantor picked up his BlackBerry and began scrolling through his e-mails. “Look at this,” he said to Dayspring and handed him the device. “It’s from the DSCC”—the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Dayspring gazed into Cantor’s phone and let out a hearty laugh.

Then Cantor shared the joke with the rest of the studio. “It’s talking about the presidential candidates,” he explained. Reading from his phone, he continued: “ ‘And one of these tea-party panderers will be the nominee and will be one step away from the presidency. If he or she wins, and we lose the Senate, they’ll join up with Eric Cantor for total control of the government.’ ”

Cantor paused and then let out a short, high-pitched giggle.

“It’s so silly,” he said.