Eric Cantor, the GOP’s Wimpy Whip

Eric Cantor is in line for a big promotion if Republicans clean up this fall. John Batchelor on Cantor’s fundraising skill, TARP conflict—and aversion to rocking the boat.

Eric Cantor, R-Va, talks to the media about health care reform. (Tom Williams, UPI / Newscom)

Eric Cantor, a soft-spoken Virginian, is a fresh face to curious Tea Party voters who, we are told, are surging like Marines in order to make him the majority leader of the Republican House come January and the new 112th Congress. What do you need to know about the man who would be King Lite besides the brandished fact that he is the only Jewish Republican in the solar system?

Eric Cantor did not rocket to power in less than a decade in the House because of his Clint Eastwood charisma, Virginia élan or keen sense of judgment. He is diminutive to meet, a coy and obtuse public speaker and a derivative thinker. And nowhere in the record of his last years in the turbulent GOP leadership is there measure by a colleague that serving with Eric Cantor was inspirational or even memorable.

Hand-picked by Majority Whip Roy “Abramoff-R-Us” Blunt early in his tenure to be a deputy whip, sort of an official water-carrier, Cantor moved up swiftly through the ranks as a Blunt protégé, because he was cheerfully obedient when sitting in the room with Friends of Abramoff and because he was unusually good at the money. “He’s about the money,” one wag offers admiringly.

Cantor, who comes from a well-to-do Richmond family, born to a real-estate-built manor, learned right away that gathering up bags of money was the only requirement to be a successful politician in or out of the majority. Cantor fans want us to know that he outspent his first opponent in the Virginia Seventh Congressional District race by four to one; we are also told that he out-raised everyone but then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom Delay in the crucial 2004 presidential cycle.

Those were the Klondike days for the Jack Abramoff crew, and Mr. Cantor knew how to keep his head down and pitch for Indian and Internet gambling, for Big Tobacco and for the useful sin of both major parties back then, toxic-waste Wall Street. “He was at all the meetings with Delay and Hastert,” recalls an ally, “and never caused any trouble.”

“He runs around handing money to people,” an observer comments. “He has people say great things about him on TV. It’s about the money.”

Cantor’s staffers boast of the congressman’s ties to a top-drawer list of Washington lobbyists, from the logical base of AIPAC to JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and to Virginia’s sentimental favorite, Philip Morris. (It is worth noting that there is a cozy overlap between Cantor’s benefactors and those of Minority Leader John Boehner.) Cantor produced an astonishing $60 million in the 2008 cycle, and he made certain his favorite House members understood his magnanimity. “He runs around handing money to people,” an observer comments. “He has people say great things about him on TV. It’s about the money.”

This swag-swinging braggadocio, while useful in Washington’s version of Monopoly, did lead to sweaty troubles for the clean-cut Cantor during the credit crisis of 2008. Cantor’s talent for obedience led him to voting with John Boehner, Roy Blunt and other House bosses for the TARP bailout plan that was concocted by the crafty Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs vet Hank Paulson. Cantor also was an enthusiastic supporter of the TARP-embracing John McCain, whose presidential campaign fell off the cliff with the bailouts. After the election, Cantor grew alarmed that he was on the wrong side of the Republican tracks and, according to a witness, “crawled on his knees to beg forgiveness” from the House survivors who had voted not once but twice against the TARP folly.

This humbling episode did not go away even after Cantor’s contrition won him re-election as House whip—even after it was revealed in prominent places such as ProPublica that the congressman’s wife, Diana Cantor, was a prominent officer of a TARP-beseeching bank, the New York Private Bank and Trust’s Emigrant Savings Bank. Mrs. Cantor had been hired to run a wealth management shop (for rich people like the Cantor family) earlier in 2008, and there was suddenly a wide-eyed perception of favoritism.

In February 2009, Democratic cut-out tools launched robocalls against Cantor and his fellow Republicans with unproved rudeness that “in the middle of the AIG scandal” this or that local GOP House member had voted for Eric Cantor and the “Cantor family bank bailout.”

Eric Cantor panicked. The morning of March 19, Cantor was on TV with peculiarly foggy words about then-Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel’s bizarre tax bill directed against AIG bonuses. Calling it “terrible tax policy,” the suddenly pliable Cantor added, “I think you’re going to find a lot of bipartisan support for the Rangel bill.” Later that same day, Eric Cantor kept his decision closely held until late in the roll call, and then surprised many by voting against his own leadership and with the Democratic majority for confiscation of 90 percent of the bonuses.

Stranger still for a man who preened about his nickname from the Left as “Dr. No,” an eyewitness remembers that Cantor “was talking to members on the floor to get members to vote with confiscation, instead of whipping them against it.”

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Six months later, Eric Cantor appears to have solved his “Cantor family bank bailout” problem by watching Mrs. Cantor move from the indiscreetly transparent Emigrant Savings Bank to the opaque Alternative Investment Management, which identifies itself as “a privately held investment management firm”—in short, a hedgie for the high-net-worth crowd. Eric Cantor has not solved his TARP “yes” vote and AIG “yes” confiscation problems however, and there is no expectation among Republican conservatives that Cantor is a reliable brain.

To comfort his unhappy colleagues and the ever hawk-eyed Tea Party, Cantor and his compadres, Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, are pitching themselves as the “Young Guns”—without much explanation for the facts that they are not young and not armed. Cantor finds additional comfort by emphasizing another oddly phallic invention called “ YouCut,” a website where just about anyone can sound off on how to save Federal money by increasing regulation, collecting taxation, eliminating earmarks, and just generally mandating that Washington annoy the unions.

For Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan, an observer remarks, “The election is about spending.” They are best thought of as materialists, as “economic libertarians,” who regard the argumentative Edmund Burkean stuff to be digressive, irritating, even impolitic wool-gathering. For example: "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Eric Cantor is bound for the House bridge on the good ship GOP, and there is no obstacle in his path now, not even his personal tic to be conflict-averse like his captain John Boehner. What is worth watching as the 112th Congress sails into action against the nimble White House and the brooding Democrats, is that in the heat of battle, such as the TARP vote of September 28, 2008, and the AIG vote of March 19, 2009, Eric Cantor ducks behind the rail and doesn’t come out till the smoke clears.

John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Follow John on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.