Bruised from Battling Obama, Eric Cantor Softens His Tone in Domestic Policy Speech

The majority leader, bruised from battling Obama, tries to connect with working Americans. Howard Kurtz on the GOP’s image rehab.

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Eric Cantor is acutely aware that the GOP has an image problem.

For the past year-and-a-half, the House majority leader and his colleagues have been manning the barricades of negativity: "No" to Obamacare. "No" to immigration reform. "No" to gun control. "No" to higher taxes on the wealthy. "No" to just about anything the White House wants.

Now Cantor is trying to soften his hard-edged reputation, portraying the Republican Party as caring deeply about education, health care and innovation.

In a highly touted speech to the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, the Virginia congressman plans to pay tribute to the “working mom:” “Her grocery bills are higher, her kids' school needs are more expensive, rent is up – and now, she's just trying to get by.”

And: “Too many parents have to weigh whether they can afford to miss work even for half a day to see their child off on the first day of school or attend a parent-teacher conference.”

Based on advance excerpts provided by his office, Cantor seems more interested in projecting empathy than offering new legislative solutions. But this could be the start of an important branding exercise.

“It's having a conversation on different terms,” Cantor told National Journal’s Ron Fournier. As for working with Democrats, he said, “If we start talking about people, maybe we can all come together.”

Cantor may be concerned about his own political persona as well. Despite his courtly style, he is consistently portrayed as a green-eyeshade conservative, more intransigent than his boss, John Boehner.

When the House speaker tried to reach a grand budget bargain with President Obama in 2011, Cantor, by all reports, remained opposed and at one point was cut out of the talks. In the tax-raising compromise that avoided a plunge over the fiscal cliff last month, Boehner voted yes; Cantor was a no.

Little wonder that the majority leader is keen to display a kinder, gentler side.

Cantor had seemed ready to side with Sen. Marco Rubio in a bipartisan compromise on immigration that links border security to a path to citizenship for those living here illegally. In his AEI speech, called “Making Life Work,” Cantor plans to say: “We must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life, and contribute to America.” But he ducked questions about the Rubio plan while making the television rounds on Tuesday.

That’s a far cry, at least in tone, from Mitt Romney saying during the presidential campaign that illegal immigrants should “self-deport.”

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Cantor visited a low-income Washington D.C. school on Monday and was photographed holding a one-year-old African-American girl. “One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable,” he plans to say in the speech.

But Cantor sounds like he is playing small ball. According to the National Journal, he will push measures requiring universities to warn students when their academic majors lack job opportunities, and to repeal a tax on medical devices that is part of Obama’s health care law. Still, presidents also use such targeted mini-initiatives to signal support for selected groups.

No one should imagine that Cantor has drunk the liberal Kool-Aid. He declares that “our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family, and accountability in government.”

A single speech will hardly resurrect the fortunes of a party whose approval rating is 26 percent in a recent poll. Whatever Cantor says, that will depend on whether House Republicans can find at least some common ground with Obama in the battles to come.