Eric Cantor Shows Off His Soft Side

Ron Fournier
National Journal

Eric Cantor grabs a plastic dinosaur from the pile of toys in front of 1-year-old Mekhi Scott, taps the beast on the table and growls, “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” Mekhi jumps — he’s startled at first — and smiles.

“You like dinosaurs?” coos Cantor, the House minority leader and one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the country. “So do I.”

Watching this weirdly cute exchange Monday at The Preparatory School of the District of Columbia, I realize just how hard it’s going to be for the GOP to rebrand itself after the 2012 election debacle. Republican leaders are a bit like Mekhi’s plastic dinosaurs: Even when they’re cute, they can be scary.

Cantor visited the school for more than an hour to gather information for a speech Tuesday that his aides are billing as an important shift of tone for the Republican Party. The speech will attempt to cast the House GOP’s traditionally conservative policy agenda in terms that appeal to parents, explaining why school vouchers, tax breaks, repealing the health care law, and other Republican standards would “make life work better.”

Will people buy a softer side of Cantor? The question is an important one because the second-most powerful House Republican is not the only GOP leader trying to soften the party’s image. In just the last few weeks:

  • The GOP-controlled House capitulated to President Obama on the debt-ceiling debate. Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, cited the “realities of divided government” when he urged his rank and file to effectively eat crow.
  • Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, is quietly lobbying conservative lawmakers and commentators to consider immigration reforms. In the not-to-distant past, Rubio’s proposals would have been fatally labeled as stalking horses for amnesty.
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republican National Committee that the GOP must “stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.”
  • A group led by Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, announced this week that it would spend money in Republican primaries to defeat far-right candidates whom the group considers unelectable. American Crossroads spent millions of dollars to defeat Democrats in the 2012 elections, and got little return on the investment.

In his speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, Cantor plans to ask Congress to require universities to warn students when their academic majors lack employment opportunities; to repeal the tax on medical devices, a provision of Obama’s health care overhaul; and to shift spending from political sciences to “hard” sciences such as cancer research. One thing he won't do, aides said, is moderate GOP policies.

"He wants to build up trust so we're not just talking about spending cuts and numbers that will hurt people. We're also talking about how we're going to help them," said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.

Eric Cantor
Eric Cantor

Cantor also is expected to endorse the broad outlines of Rubio’s approach on immigration. He came to Mekhi’s school to underscore his support of a conservative approach to education: allowing federal money now spent in public schools to follow individual children, even if they enroll in private schools such at Mekhi’s.

The Preparatory School is based in a low-income section of the district, providing small classes and a safe environment to about 100 students. The average teacher salary is about $25 an hour, far below the rate at public schools.

The conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that about $1,100 of federal money goes toward the education of the average U.S. public school student. Cantor would like that money to be made available to parents unhappy with poor performing public schools.

Awaiting Cantor’s arrival, school vice principal Richard Reavis said that the parents who feel trapped in public schools generally can’t afford a private education. “That’s the challenge,” he said. “I don’t have Uncle Sam” funding his school.

Cantor, the father of three grown children and a representative from Virginia, seemed to genuinely enjoy the visit, wandering from class to class chatting with the students. His aides had to pull him away from conversations to keep him on schedule.

“Y’all keep up the good work, OK?” he told a class of teenagers while walking out of their class, past a bright yellow sign that said, “Bully Free Zone.”

Partisan Democrats love to call Republicans bullies, belittling GOP policies as cruel and heartless. Left unanswered, demagoguery sticks — which is the point of Cantor’s charm offensive.