Eric Cantor's Place in History

Eric Cantor's Place in History

A colleague, watching outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) face the press after announcing that he would step down in the wake of his surprise primary defeat, wondered aloud what Cantor’s place in history would be. Cantor himself seemed to have no clear idea of his most important achievement, summarizing his record with a laundry list of good intentions, like “a stack of bills sitting in the Senate” awaiting passage.

History will remember Cantor for at least one major accomplishment: the unanimous “no” vote against the stimulus bill on January 28, 2009. That “no” vote was not a foregone conclusion. A handful of Republicans supported the stimulus in the Senate–including soon-to-be-Democrat Arlen Specter–and House Republicans, a dejected minority, had been expected to offer at least some support to President Barack Obama’s massive spending plan.

Yet when Obama dismissed Republican ideas for rescuing the economy by telling them on Jan. 23, “I won,” that made clear there was no room for compromise. Cantor, then serving as Minority Whip, realized that if the GOP caved on the stimulus, it would never be able to stand up to President Obama again, which in turn would have dire consequences both for government policy and for the basic constitutional function of opposition politics.

Even as the vote began, conservative observers were resigned to seeing Republicans support a bill that was nearly 20 times what Obama himself had proposed during the campaign, and which was going to spend the country into severe debt for predictably feeble economic gains. Blogger Allahpundit, for example, quipped at HotAir.com: “A trillion dollars is a small price to pay for bipartisanship! Prediction: 20 Republicans defect.”

When it became clear that Cantor had unified the party against the euphemistically named “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” conservatives were exultant. Michelle Malkin celebrated: “Not one Republican voted for it….Finally. A party of opposition worth its name….Savor this while you can. Kudos to the GOP leadership for showing some spine. More, please.” The gesture did not stop the stimulus, but laid down an important marker.

CNBC reporter Rick Santelli is often credited with inspiring the Tea Party with his rant against the stimulus and other government policies from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade several weeks later. Yet Santelli’s rant resonated because of the foundation of opposition that Cantor had laid the previous month. That unanimous “no” vote set the stage for the Tea Party’s emergence–and, perhaps, for its decision to stay within the GOP.

It is rather telling that Cantor did not seem to recall his own moment of political greatness as he attempted to summarize his career in Congress. He seemed more interested in the steps he had taken in the governing majority than in the opposition benches, which is a reflection of Washington, D.C.’s outlook, and emblematic of the posture of a GOP establishment that has lost touch with the sentiments of many conservative voters today. 

Yet nothing can erase what Cantor did in early 2009, at a time when the rest of the Republican Party was in complete disarray, mulling the terms of its surrender–not just to the Democrats, but to history. Cantor’s bold gesture preserved the essence of opposition politics–which even Democrats, once they are completely out of power, will better appreciate. Cantor’s leadership in that moment left a legacy that is worth fighting to protect.

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