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EXCLUSIVE: Cantor says GOP is no longer ‘relevant’

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

GLEN ALLEN, Va.

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.

"I'm not one to say I'm the right guy, but I would hope, my case for this position is, I very much believe our party is one of limited government, lower taxes, belief in free markets, belief in a strong national defense posture with a cautious approach to making sure that happens.

"I also believe, though, that the country is not only poised, it is desperate for us to use those principles to fashion solutions to everyday challenges, and I believe that this country will accept that because we're not a country that is all about big-government solutions, and I think that's where the other side goes."

Some House Republicans had looked to Mr. Cantor to challenge Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the party's leader since 2006. But for someone who spent the past six years as chief deputy whip, the whip's post is a logical fit.

There were times over the past two years of Democratic control when Mr. Cantor was ready to fight, and Mr. Boehner decided appeasement was a better path.

Mr. Cantor nods slightly when asked whether he'll stand up to the House Republicans' leader, should the need arise in the next Congress. Mr. Cantor said the losses in the past two elections have stripped away pressure to go along simply to get along.

Mr. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House. That has given him a high profile on Middle East issues, and has made him a key fundraiser for Republicans.

He was a surrogate for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign this year, and was even reported to have been considered for the vice-presidential nomination. Virginia Republicans used to joke that the congressman was not the most famous Cantor. That honor went to his wife, Diana, who as the former executive director of the Virginia College Savings Plan, used to be a ubiquitous presence on commercials advertising the program.

Mr. Cantor's Republican leanings started early - something of an oddity for a Jewish family in Richmond.

His parents got involved in Republican causes through their friendship with the Obenshain family, a mainstay of Virginia politics. That meant as a boy Mr. Cantor manned precincts, put up yard signs, and, he admitted, occasionally took down a Democrat's signs.

John S. Reid, a former member of Virginia's House of Delegates and one of Mr. Cantor's mentors, said he remembers political bull sessions at the congressman's parents' house in the 1970s, and he said even then, as a high school student, Mr. Cantor would sit in.

Mr. Cantor made his first run for office in 1991, winning a race where the primary was the key challenge. He topped two candidates much older than him in a convention at a high school gym.

Nine years later, he won a brutal primary for the House seat being vacated by 20-year veteran Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. in a matchup that pitted Mr. Cantor, seen as the business candidate from north of the James River, against state Sen. Steve Martin, seen as the social-issues candidate from south of the river.

Thanks to his experience bridging that gap in the years since, Mr. Cantor could be the right man to help bridge what some Republicans say is a coming national rift between those two factions of their party.

Mr. Reid, who once held the whip's position for Republicans in the House of Delegates, said Mr. Cantor will bring a needed balance to the position at the congressional level.

"He's smart. He's a well-educated young man. But besides that, his temperament is exemplary. He knows how to get along with people. He can walk into a room with a group of people who don't agree and find common ground," he said.

Mr. Cantor also can help with the cash. His political action committee raised as much as Mr. Boehner's this election, and Mr. Cantor topped Mr. Boehner when it came to contributions to Republican incumbents and challengers.

In a season in which Republicans took a beating, Mr. Cantor can give his colleagues some advice about thriving in a bad environment. He won 63 percent of the vote Nov. 4 - 10 percentage points more than Mr. McCain won in the district, which stretches from Richmond and its western suburbs up through Culpeper and Skyline Drive.

Mr. Cantor ran only 1 percentage point behind his 2006 total. That performance came as three congressional districts and a state Senate seat switched from Republican to Democrat.

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