Cantor, Cornered

Illustration by Dan Goldman

Ever since Eric Cantor became No. 2 to John Boehner four years ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that the hyperambitious Cantor would knife his nominal boss in the back as soon as he had the chance. “You know Cantor’s trying to get your job,” President Obama tauntingly told the House speaker during their debt-ceiling talks in 2011. And yet, despite obvious tensions between Cantor and Boehner, the two Republicans always managed to strike a unified public front.

Until last week: On New Year’s Day, Boehner cast his lot with 172 Democrats and only 84 other members of his party and voted for the tax-­hiking legislation that ultimately ended the “fiscal cliff” drama; Cantor, saying he couldn’t abide by the bill’s lack of spending cuts, voted against it. It was a shockingly brazen split, and some in Washington believed that with Boehner up for reelection as speaker two days later, it marked the opening volley of the long-awaited Cantor coup. Or as put it in a headline: “ERIC CANTOR MAKES FIRST MOVE TO UNSEAT BOEHNER IN ‘FISCAL CLIFF’ KABUKI THEATER.” And then … nothing happened. “All is not well in the palace,” says one GOP member, “but it’s clear the prince is not trying to poison the king’s chalice.” Now Cantor loyalists worry that their guy, rather than seizing more power, has shot himself in the foot.

It’s a misconception that Cantor is reckless. Although he became the No. 2 House Republican at the tender age of 45 and clearly has designs on the top job, he is playing a long game. “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,” a House Republican close to Cantor explained to me in 2011, when talk of a Cantor coup was especially loud. “And Eric is young enough to wait for that.”

The problem for Cantor is that the longer he has waited, the more he has become identified in his fellow Republicans’ eyes with Boehner, who’s on his way to going down as the least effective speaker in modern political history. During the 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations, when Cantor privately signaled that he wouldn’t abide by any plan negotiated with Obama that raised revenues, he was a hero to the GOP rank and file and a clear alternative to Boehner. But during the fiscal-cliff talks, Cantor voiced strong public support for Boehner’s negotiating strategy while staying largely silent inside the House. When Cantor ultimately voted against the compromise legislation, some fellow Republican members, including those who voted with him, viewed it as a desperate stab at shoring up his future prospects.

“There was no predicate for his ‘no’ vote,” concedes one Cantor friend. “There was no setup to it.” Within the GOP caucus, there are solid supporters of the Virginia congressman, another bloc that would never get behind him for speaker, and a swing group in the middle, and it’s that last camp that is most put off by his move on the fiscal-cliff bill. Indeed, even if Cantor had tried to overthrow Boehner last Thursday, he wouldn’t have had the votes.

Cantor allies fear that by doing too little to differentiate himself from Boehner within the caucus since the fireworks of 2011, he may have missed his moment. “Eric has almost become Boehner Lite” to other GOP members, says the supporter. “The longer that goes on, it becomes increasingly likely that he doesn’t become the heir apparent. Instead, he becomes part of the people who need to be replaced once Boehner decides to walk off into the sunset.”

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Cantor, Cornered