Political Animal


February 07, 2013 8:53 AM The Eric Cantor Rorschach Test

By Ed Kilgore

It’s hardly unusual for different people to hear the same speech and have entirely different reactions. But gotta say, Eric Cantor’s Great Big Speech earlier this week at the American Enterprise Institute is turning out to be a real Rorschach Test that reflects how people thought about the Republican Party Cantor was trying to “rebrand.”

As someone who’s had to listen to people from across the ideological spectrum make policy arguments over many years, I was shocked at Cantor’s lack of originality as he scraped the bottom of the think tank barrel to come up with something—anything—positive to say on education, health care and jobs (some subjects, of course, like the environment, were just beyond his imagination altogether, and/or of zero interest to his audience).

But to E.J. Dionne, a very wise man, Cantor’s speech represented the potential turning point for the GOP that the Virginian had telegraphed before delivering it:

A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficial yet nonetheless reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing.
This is why Cantor’s speech was more important than the policies he outlined, which were primarily conservative retreads. His intervention proved that Obama and progressives are changing the terms of the debate, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.
Cantor wasn’t making the case for smaller government or tax cuts for the “job creators.” He was asking what government could do for the middle class — “to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who just want their life to work again.”
No wonder Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most subtle strategists, jumped at the chance to praise Cantor for taking “the first step towards finding common ground in agreeing on the problem you are trying to solve.” If the debate is about who will be nicer to business or who will cut taxes, Republicans win. What Schumer understands is that if the issue is providing relief for the middle class (and for workers, immigrants and low-income children), Republicans are competing over questions on which progressives have the advantage.

Well, maybe, if Cantor is actually trashing a generation of conservative politics and doing the best he can to come up with a “positive” agenda, then maybe his efforts are praiseworthy like a toddler’s first few clumsy steps.

But Michael Barone, speaking from inside the conservative movement, had a different take:

Cantor titled his remarks “Making Life Work,” and they were clearly aimed at Main Street.
He spoke not of educational block grants, but of having federal education “follow children” to schools their parents choose.
In a move reminiscent of presidents’ State of the Union messages since 1982, he brought along Joseph Kelley, who sent his son, Rashawn, and his three daughters to private schools with money from a District of Columbia voucher program the Obama administration has tried to shut down.
He criticized the Obamacare tax on medical devices by bringing a Baltimore nurse who worked to develop replacement discs for patients with back pain and then needed one herself. She was wearing her cervical collar.
He brought 12-year-old Katie, from Richmond, who has been treated for cancer almost all her life, to illustrate Republican support for funding basic medical research.
Addressing immigration, he brought Fiona Zhou, a systems engineering graduate student whose chances to remain in the United States would improve if, as the House voted last year, more immigration slots were opened for foreigners with advance science, technology and engineering degrees.
He endorsed the Dream Act, legal residence and citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. He praised the bipartisan work on a bill including border security, employment verification and guest-worker programs.
All this was a contrast with Cantor’s usual penchant to speak in Washington talk and with the tendency of many Republicans, notably Mitt Romney, to speak in abstractions like free enterprise and government regulation, rather than in words that describe the experiences of ordinary Americans.

Here’s the part where I nearly fell out of my chair laughing:

Yes, there’s a certain amount of theater and contrivance to this. But that’s often true in politics. There was sophisticated argumentation in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the two candidates also put on a show.

Boil off Barone’s hype, and what he’s really saying is that Canton’s speech shows what you get if conservative policy prescriptions aren’t advanced as just tactical window-dressing for a savage message of reaction aimed at true believers who understand the real goal is a return to a very different era of American life, but are instead offered as “solutions” to “Main Street” problems.

This is hardly novel, and would have seemed entirely normal just a few years ago. It’s a sign of how far the GOP has drifted from reality that the idea of selling its policies as actually intended to solve problems is greeted as some sort of Copernican Revolution.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • jim filyaw on February 07, 2013 9:27 AM:

    barone, like romney, norquist, ryan and so many other republican leading light wouldn't recognize the middle class experience if they were slapped up the side of the head with it. that barone was much taken with cantor's blathering is hardly surprising. the tragedy is that for the past thirty years neutered democrats have been trying to pass themselves off as crypto-republicans at worst. if they don't man up and start speaking for the middle class, it is truly screwed.

  • Josef K on February 07, 2013 9:48 AM:

    To be fair to Barone, the entire conservative mindset is inherently been barren of ideas or working policy. Its only ever been a reactive one, not a proactive one, more concerned about maintaining a status quo, mindless of whether or not its a sustainable one, than actually advancing the lives of citizenry.

    Barone and others can't help but respond positively when the same babboon droppings are presented to them with a faintly different frosting. They just aren't equipt to think outside of what they already know and love.

  • lou on February 07, 2013 9:53 AM:

    Here is a short, real test for the "new" GOP:
    1. Send K Street packing
    2. Kick the Koch bros. and their other plutocratic benefactors in the nuts
    3. Pass legislation to negate the anti democracy consequences of Citizens United
    4. Give up their taxpayer subsidized health care benefits and see what it is like purchasing private health care plans on their own
    5. Pass legislation that would put some real teeth in laws pertaining to the revolving doors between government and industry that impacts themselves and their staffs

    In short, stand for real political reform. Not holding my breath. Until then, any of their bullshit rhetoric about standing with the middle class is just more head feints.

  • c u n d gulag on February 07, 2013 10:01 AM:

    Ok, let's say that Cantor's speech was some sort of a 'Come to Jesus" moment for Republicans.

    Well, then, let's see some action, 'cause words don't cut it anymore.
    They've thrown so much lipstick on their same old pig for the last 30 years, that it outweighs the whole pig.

    And the only action I keep seeing is that in the states, those noted laboratories of democracy, Conservatives and Republicans aren't doing anything even vaguely related to helping "Main Street," unless it's "Main Street" to keep immigrants having a tough time there, the women going through "Forced Labor," or, if they're working, getting paid less than men, and their usual cut taxes on the rich, making the lower and middle classes pay more, and working to eliminate "Earned Benefits," and other assorted ratfecking BS they've long held in their bag of trick - as if that's in any way related to "Main Street" somehow.

    As evidence, I give you states like Kansas, who just passed one of, if not, the most regressive tax law in the nation.
    They cut corporate taxes, and taxes on the rich, and increased sales and other taxes, that directly will cost the affected families at minimum a couple of hundred bucks a year.

    Lest anyone confuse what Kansas is doing, it's a hell of a lot closer to Wall Street values, than to the ones held on any Main Street - at least any mainstream outside of the Bible Belt.

    All they do is talk, talk, talk, their talk.

    But when they finally walking the walk, that's always done on the backs of the poor and middle class - in sharpened golf cleats, just to remind them of how painful the grinding poverty they want to keep people in, can be.

    So, pardon me if I ignore their yapping, until I see something other than their "usual same old, same old..."

    Then, I can be genuinely shocked.
    Wake me if that ever happens, ok?

  • schtick on February 07, 2013 10:13 AM:

    How much of a speech would he have had left if he hadn't "borrowed" from Obama's speeches?

  • Bokonon on February 07, 2013 10:57 AM:

    Barone is hiding the ball. The reason Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney talk about abstractions and general principles is because it is deliberate - and because it is a winning strategy for them. Abstractions work. The GOP doesn't want to present their actual policy prescriptions to the general public in raw form. They save that for other audiences.

    This is the Frank Luntz approach of dressing up unpopular policy ideas like breaking up, de-federalizing, block-granting or privatizing popular federal entitlement programs like Medicare or Social Security with code works and framing, such as as "preserving" or "strengthening" the programs, making them "sustainable", and "protecting" them.

    And it works. Look at last two election cycles, and see how many voters were confused about the relative positions of the two parties. The GOP was running simultaneously as the guys that wanted to implement something like the Ryan Budget, or the even more radical "Cut, Cap and Balance" plan ... while simultaneously telling voters that the GOP was going to prevent that radical, wild-eyed Obama guy from cutting their benefits.

  • Jeff on February 07, 2013 11:41 AM:

    All PR, no product.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on February 07, 2013 11:46 AM:

    Barone is hiding the ball. The reason Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney talk about abstractions and general principles is because it is deliberate - and because it is a winning strategy for them.

    Mitt certainly brought tears to my eyes with all those abstractions in his inaugural address.

  • E.Hatt-Swank on February 07, 2013 2:08 PM:

    That last paragraph made me laugh out loud -- Copernican Revolution indeed. Thanks Ed, beautifully put. I am squeezing every drop of enjoyment I can from watching the right wing flounder and flail these days.