Substance to the left of him, primary voters to the right

Being House Minority Whip Eric Cantor means sounding open to reform, but not actually considering it

Published September 22, 2009 4:25PM (EDT)

Republican leaders have a tough job these days, as they have to walk the fine line between their party’s alienated base and the demands of the general electorate. Important Republicans want to maintain their mainstream viability, so they're less likely to dabble in Birtherism and "death panel" talk than they are to nod and wink at it.

A good example of this challenge in action is healthcare. The GOP can’t really negotiate a compromise, because any bill at all is going to be interpreted by the base as the worst betrayal of principles. But party leaders can hardly run around declaring that they’ve got no interest in reform and bipartisanship. Remember that memo from Republican pollster Frank Luntz earlier this year: "You simply MUST be vocally and passionately on the side of REFORM... If the dynamic becomes 'President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,' then the battle is lost."

Hence, what happened at a public event held by House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., along with neighboring Democratic congressman Bobby Scott.

Some, obviously, were hoping for a summer-style throw-down. “I felt like pulling a Joe Wilson many times,” complained Cantor constituent Joe Caccioti afterward. Caccioti was the first questioner, and he demanded to know why Cantor “refused or ignored our requests” for a town hall meeting. (The event yesterday was a “public square.”) Cantor, apparently sensing that wanting “a town hall” meant wanting to get loud, replied, “We are here to try to understand where the two sides are, to be able to bridge those differences.”

So, praise to Cantor? Covering the event, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank walked away impressed with the Republican leader. “For Cantor's colleagues, this provided a valuable lesson, should they wish to heed it: Republican lawmakers can control the angry voices on the right.” After all, Milbank points out, Cantor ignored the crowd’s grumbling and suggested that he and Scott, the Democrat, agree on key points. “I do think you can fix some of the 20 percent [we disagree on],” Cantor said, predicting that a bill would pass in the end.

But the Post wasn’t the only paper that covered “the public square.” The Hill was there too, and the headline there was “Cantor pressed on lack of GOP healthcare plan.” The key quote? A question from Richmond resident Ben Ragsdale: “What is your substantive proposal to meet these real everyday problems that people have? Where’s the beef?”

And Ragsdale has a point. The efforts of certain Democrats to bend over backward for a compromise haven't really been reciprocated. The GOP has not bothered to go much beyond catchphrases, and there’s very little chance that Cantor or his party will actually vote for a Democratic bill, despite that vaunted “80 percent” agreement.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Eric Cantor R-va. Healthcare Reform Republican Party