Future Speaker? Cantor builds profile as GOP alternative

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called Monday for the U.S. to remain engaged on the international front, as he continues to develop his foreign-policy credentials in anticipation of a potential ascendance among House Republicans.

In a series of high-profile speeches, the Virginia Republican has tried to repair the party’s battered image in the wake of the 2012 election, highlighting popular stances such as support for school choice and federal funding for medical research as areas where the Republican Party doesn’t get enough credit from voters.

And he hasn’t shied away from taking on some elements within his own party, either.

Speaking at Virginia Military Institute on Monday, Mr. Cantor warned against the nation’s turn toward the “isolationist sentiment” and suggested the Obama administration’s lack of leadership on the global stage — particularly when it comes to Iran’s nuclear threat, the civil war in Syria and the bungled “reset” with Russia — has made the world less safe.

“American foreign policy should not be guided by hollow rhetoric, unwise or moveable timelines, and unenforced red lines,” Mr. Cantor said, taking a swipe at the president’s ultimatum to the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons. “Instead, it should be driven by clear principles: Protect the homeland, defend our allies, and advance freedom, democracy and human rights abroad, while maintaining a military superiority that cannot be matched.”

David Winston, a pollster for House GOP leaders, said Mr. Cantor learned a lesson from the 2012 election: Republicans must offer a clear center-right vision to voters if they want to get elected.

Mr. Winston said House leaders started laying out their agenda in the 2010 Pledge to America, but that message was muddied by the Romney presidential campaign, which was intent on making the election a referendum on Mr. Obama’s record.

“A referendum strategy does not work,” he said, adding that Republicans are changing their strategy and working to provide alternative solutions to those of Democrats.

“I think you are seeing Cantor reflect that attitude — in terms of, if you are going to get people’s vote, you have to define for them the alternative vision they are going to get,” he said.

Of course, Mr. Cantor’s series of speeches is also helping his own profile at a time when many House Republicans wonder whether Speaker John A. Boehner will give up his post at the end of this Congress.

Among Mr. Cantor’s stances last year was embracing a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants — a move that signaled a shift within the House GOP.

Mr. Boehner has struggled to maintain unity within the GOP caucus over how best to rein in entitlement programs, and the party has been divided over international issues.

Mr. Cantor made it clear Monday that he is a champion of a strong national defense and that he opposes the strain of isolationism in the libertarian wing of the party that has pushed back against the military adventurism embraced by Republicans under President George W. Bush.

“Many Americans, and politicians from both parties, want to believe the tide of war has receded,” he said. “As was the case in the wake of World War I, many want to believe the costly foreign interventions of recent years can simply be put behind us. That we can simply choose not to be involved. However, we mustn’t let ourselves be lulled into complacency again or forget the lessons of history.”

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