EXCLUSIVE: Cantor says GOP is no longer ‘relevant’

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EXCLUSIVE:

GLEN ALLEN, Va.

Eric Cantor” href=”/themes/?Theme=Eric+Cantor” >Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, poised to ascend to House Republicans’ No. 2 leader this week, said the Republican Party in Washington is no longer “relevant” to voters and must stop simply espousing principles. Instead, it must craft real solutions to health care and the economy.

“Where we have really fallen down is, we have lacked the ability to be relevant to people’s lives. Let’s set aside the last eight years, and our falling down in living up to expectations of what we said we were going to do,” Mr. Cantor told The Washington Times in his district office outside of Richmond. “It’s the relevancy question.”

As chief deputy whip, Mr. Cantor, 45, was the logical choice to move up when Republicans’ current whip, Rep. Roy Blunt, stepped aside - something Mr. Blunt announced days after Republicans lost at least 20 seats in the House.

A week before Wednesday’s leadership elections, Mr. Cantor offered a bleak assessment of his party and where it’s fallen: technology, preparedness for political realities, such as the next round of redistricting, and pursuing its ideals.

Most of all, he said, Republicans have been content to offer principles, rather than concrete solutions. Voters, he said, have punished them for it.

“It’s the roads, it’s going to the gas station, that’s still there when the price will bump back up. It’s education, it’s health care. These are the issues, frankly, that we have not been on offense with,” he said.

Some conservatives argue that President-elect Barack Obama should be given some leeway on his mandate, with the expectation he will overstep. Those strategists say Republicans should pick their battles, perhaps forgoing a fight over tax increases to save their firepower for issues such as health care.

Mr. Cantor said Republicans should “be very wise about the battles we fight,” but that they should fight every time there’s a principle involved. For example, he disagrees with pundits who say Republicans should forgo issues such as immigration.

“It’s not a dead issue. It’s about how do we go about finally enforcing the law, and that’s both in the interior as well as at the border,” he said, adding that Democrats are likely to overreach if they go for a bill that offers citizenship to illegal immigrants, which he said is “amnesty.”

“This whole notion of comprehensive immigration reform, just like comprehensive Middle East peace, you know, that is too high of a bar. You’ve got to be incremental about it. If they were smart, they’d be incremental about it, but they can’t hold back some of their factions,” he said.

As one of those pushing for a House Republican alternative to the Wall Street bailout package the Bush administration and congressional Democrats crafted, he ended up voting for the Democrats’ bill. He said Republicans have to be able to draw lines on future votes such as an automobile manufacturers’ bailout, even if it means losing some of their members’ support.

“Somebody in Michigan, let’s say, they’re going to be hard-pressed, because they’ve got a lot of constituents who say, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ OK, and so you don’t get everybody’s vote. But right now, the message of our party needs to be, it is not the answer to forestall the inevitable,” he said. “We have a failed model of our auto industry in our country. For decades now, they’ve been on the decline. For decades, they’ve been conceding in terms of their labor contracts, that have saddled management’s ability to look beyond the next pay period, when they should be looking five years down the road and designing the cars people want to buy.”

Formerly a steady defender of President Bush, Mr. Cantor doesn’t attack the president directly, but he repeatedly refers to “eight years,” using the term as if it were a symbol of dark times for Republican principles. That drives his call for Republicans to make themselves relevant while remaining true to their principles - the pitch he said he’s making to colleagues.

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