- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2011

During last week’s heated debate on Capitol Hill about a House GOP-crafted stopgap funding bill, there was little doubt who Democrats blamed for an impasse that pushed the federal government to within days of a shutdown.

“Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, started this fight when he said we cannot fund the 2011 disasters without an offset,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu on the Senate floor Sept. 26. “I want the people of America to know that this was Eric Cantor’s idea. This is on the tea party agenda. I don’t think it should be on America’s agenda.”

The Louisiana Democrat, who mentioned the House majority leader’s name almost 30 times during floor speeches that day, derisively labeled the bill’s disaster-relief provision the “Cantor doctrine” — a position she called “dangerous” and one that “would have put us in a very, very tough position in all future disasters.”

Ms. Landrieu’s Cantor barbs are not isolated within the congressional Democratic caucus. Rather, the Virginia lawmaker and self-described Republican “young gun” has emerged as a favorite foil.

“Cantor is a convenient symbol for Democrats to attack because he’s unapologetic about his views, he seems unwilling to budge on what he considers certain matters of principle and he’s much more closely tied to the tea party than some of the Republican Party leadership,” said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

“If the Democrats want an embodiment of what they believe is the new Republican willing to shut down the government and hold the whole country at an impasse over issues most of the country doesn’t understand, he’s it.”

Many freshmen House Republican conservatives have turned to Mr. Cantor, 48, over Speaker John A. Boehner for inspiration and guidance, elevating the Virginian’s status as both a mentor within his caucus and an enticing target for Democrats.

“It’s more than just the disaster relief [debate], it is the pernicious role that [Mr. Cantor] has in driving the extreme parts of their caucus,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “He had been seeking out a controversial role for a lot of years.”

Mr. Cantor’s emergence as a prime Republican bogeyman has come about in part because Democrats haven’t always been successful in demonizing Mr. Boehner, whose laid-back persona and occasional willingness to reach across the party aisle has won him kind words from President Obama. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, erudite and soft spoken, also doesn’t present the biggest target for partisan vitriol.

When Republicans took control of the House in January for the first time in four years, it was Mr. Boehner who bore the brunt of Democratic attacks. But the Democrats’ prime GOP target began to shift toward Mr. Cantor in June when he walked away from bipartisan deficit-reduction talks between Congress and Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

The recent squabble over a stopgap funding bill, when Mr. Cantor doggedly defended his party’s desire to offset 2011 Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds with spending cuts elsewhere, further solidified his role as a principle antagonist for Democrats.

Mr. Cantor’s disaster-relief position did generate some push back from his Richmond-area district, which was the epicenter of the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the East Coast in August. But the lawmaker has denied he suggested emergency federal aid should he withheld for victims of natural disasters, accusing the media of overblowing his position.

“The majority leader has never said the things [Ms. Landrieu] alleged — he only suggested that we ought to provide disaster-aid dollars to those who need them in a responsible way,” said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring.

“Considering that President [Bill] Clinton offset disaster spending multiple times, perhaps she should have called this, ‘the Clinton Doctrine.’ “

Mr. Cantor isn’t suffering politically for the attacks, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“The more arrows [Mr. Cantor] takes shot by Democrats, the more popular he becomes among Republicans, which is exactly where he wants to be,” Mr. Sabato said.

“I don’t care what people want to say, he’s never going to be president, he’s never going to be senator or governor. His future is, as he hopes, to be speaker of the House. And to be speaker of the House, you really just have to please your own caucus.”

Whether Mr. Cantor’s relentless leadership approach will translate into a successful tenure as majority leader, a role he has served since January, is too early to predict, Mr. Rozell said.

“People who believe in the old style of compromise, cooperative and moderation as the hallmarks of our government, wouldn’t give him very high marks,” Mr. Rozell said. “But from a strictly strategic standpoint, has he been able to raise his profile and make a big impact? Absolutely.

“You don’t see many party leaders in such a short time vault to the top of the national policy debates the way he has.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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