This interview marks the first of a series of conversations between The New Ledger and leading figures on the center-right on the subject of a hypothetical free market conservative comeback. No less an authority than David Plouffe reminded us this week that the latest election doesn’t mark the death of the Republican Party — that American politics is inherently cyclical, and the GOP will eventually return to power (though not necessarily as conservatives). The question is whether that return will be measured in cycles or in generations, and the degree to which the Republican Party that mounts a comeback will look different than the GOP as it exists today.
These days, following the Republican Party in monopartisan Washington is a lot like watching an ensemble indie movie: plenty of decent role players, the former teen idol tinged by scandal, the odd duck, the once-respected star whose skills are fading with age — but nobody who seems like the next big thing.
A possible exception to this rule is House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the sharp Jewish Republican from Virginia who has already earned a reputation for his organizational gifts and for traded jabs with President Obama. His latest project — the National Council for a New America — brings together a group of current and former Republican elected officials for what Cantor calls a national discussion of principles and solutions.
Cantor spoke to The New Ledger about the NCNA and his recipe for a conservative comeback: adherence to conservative principles, reconnected with the needs of a broader section of American voters.
The New Ledger: So what do you aim to accomplish with this new group?
Rep. Eric Cantor: The National Council for a New America, which launched on Saturday, is organized around the purpose of beginning a conversation. It’s represents an understanding of the fact that conservative ideology, and the principles of the conservative cause, are not reflected at all in what’s going on in Washington right now. Unfortunately, from an electoral standpoint, it appears voters aren’t responding to conservative messages. So what we want to do is foster a discussion — a dialogue around the principles of freedom and opportunity, limited government, individual rights, and the values of faith and family — and to have that discussion, focusing on applying those principles to the challenges the country is facing, and that people are facing in communities across America.
It’s very much following in the model of what Ronald Reagan said we needed to do as a party. We need to be out their winning people to our side by convincing them that it’s these common sense conservative principles that will get our country back on the path to prosperity.
TNL: Do you personally believe it would be better for Republicans to rally around conservatism, and seek to convince voters in the middle their solutions are better, or to try to move the party toward the middle, in hopes of meeting voters where they are right now?
Cantor: The brilliance of leadership in this country, throughout our history, has been understanding the challenges of the day, and offering the people solutions to those challenges. Our solutions, as conservatives, are based on those core principles. As a Virginian, I can say personally that I feel I’ve inherited that duty in office, passed on since the earliest leaders in our country who acted as servants, paving the way for our democracy. It’s those principles, the same ones that guided the writing of the Constitution, that have to guide us toward the solutions we offer. We need to reconnect those principles, target their lessons toward the problems that worry so many Americans, I firmly believe that if we are principled — that we don’t have to forget our principles or ignore them, fail to apply them — but that we can’t just adhere to them, we have to apply them. We have to make them relevant to the challenges people are facing today.
Think about it this way: right now, small businesses, working families, single moms, are all facing unprecedented challenges. The problems a single mom has to think about now every morning when she wakes up are incredibly daunting. She’s looking for some answers. She’s listening to the TV, the radio, she’s reading the blogs — not the newspapers, by the way — and she knows things aren’t right in Washington. She has questions. She hasn’t been getting an answer from us. The other side has been giving her an answer, it might not be a good answer or an answer that works, but it’s an answer. This is an opportunity for us to grow the conservative movement by returning to those commonly held principles that I think most people identify with. We have to look to transcend some of the old divisions right now, the one’s we’ve accepted for too long, and stick to the common purpose I believe we still have.
We all want to see this country return to prosperity. The best way forward is as conservatives.
TNL: During the campaign, President Obama repeatedly promised a net spending cut and lower taxes for 95% of Americans. Can conservatives turn broken promises like this into something that voters will respond to, or is the President’s popularity so great that he’s essentially invulnerable?
Cantor: The reality is that we haven’t seen delivery yet on a lot of the promises the president made during the campaign season. A net spending cut? That’s the furthest from the truth. Tax cuts for individuals, in a meaningful way that would create jobs, have not occurred.
Republicans need to stand up now and make it clear we understand that businesses need relief right now, we understand they need a functioning credit market, we understand that government stepping into the capital markets is not a long term solution, nor will it lead to job growth, And we also understand that government expansion, in scope and spending, doesn’t allow for long term wealth creation, it doesn’t help working families in any sustainable way. We need to be focused on enabling families to create wealth, not to redistribute wealth. We need to be talking to people who are seeking answers, and I believe these conversations will bear fruit.
TNL: Virginia’s downfall for conservatives has paralleled their national struggles. What can Virginia Republicans do to regain the high ground? Can the national GOP hope to make a comeback if it can’t figure out how to run and win in a state like Virginia?
Cantor: We have a microcosm in Virginia of the challenges conservatives are facing nationwide. Virginia is Ground Zero this year, given the off year elections. There’s going to be significant attention on the Commonwealth, and in many ways it’s our first opportunity to start a comeback.
The primary issue in Virginia is that we’ve had a lot of people move here, for quality of life reasons, for economic opportunity reasons — and it’s not just in Northern Virginia, but throughout the urban crescent, the Richmond area, the Tidewater area. We’ve seen the growth in opportunity that has attracted people from outside Virginia, and lately, over the past several cycles, the Republican Party has not been able to offer a vision that connects with people who’ve moved to the state. We aren’t talking about the things they care about.
How do you deal with congestion on some of the highways, for example? Longterm for the Commonwealth, what is our strategy for sustaining our infrastructure? There’s all types of outside the box solutions on this, thinking in different ways about these problems, whether it be through the promotion of a public private partnership on high speed rail, market based solutions to traffic management control and patterns…We also have to look at health care, and particularly at education. We have some excellent school districts in Virginia, we also have some that aren’t performing as well. Money spent on education has got to be spent with accountability. We have to make sure that money which is spent is spent primarily in the classroom, and not bogged down in the administrative and bureaucratic side of things. And we have to ensure parents are in charge of their child’s instruction. We need to be giving parents the tools they need to make informed choices to protect their children, to guide their upbringing.
These are common sense conservative principles about government, arising from values based in the family, and what parents want for the future of their children, and provide a better path forward.
TNL: Today’s news about Chrysler’s standing, and the story that broke over the weekend regarding the Administration’s arm-twisting activities, have many in the marketplace nervous and shocked. What do you think activities like this say about the White House’s strategy going forward, and what would you say to answer the concerns of investors?
Cantor: To take a secured creditor and to tell bondholders that if they don’t play ball with the White House, if they don’t do what the White House says, then they’ll receive threats by the White House to ruin their business is unconscionable. This is what you get when the government steps into your boardroom. There is a dire need for an exit strategy here, to get the government out of hiring and firing executives. How is it the president’s role to hire or fire a CEO? How is it the Congress’s role to say that compensation packages private companies give are reasonable or not? This is the direction this Congress and President Obama are headed in.
Now if you take a step back and say look, all this is done for laudable reasons, they’re just trying to fix the economy — but that misses the point. Government takeover is just not how you fix it.
It gives cause to what we’re doing here, the reason why we’ve launched the National Council for a New America: what’s made this country great is free markets, the drive of entrepreneurship, all without the fear of government taking you over. Investors need more certainty: Anytime you have the government using taxpayer money to take ownership of these large pieces of institutions, you create such an environment of uncertainty — of picking and choosing winners and losers — that you can’t expect investors to come in off the sidelines. Chrysler is the case in point.
TNL: So when it comes to the National Council for a New America, can you judge the success of this effort? Is it a strategic redefinition, a repackaging, a rebranding after some rough years for Republicans when many who were once part of the “permanent majority” coalition slipped away … or one more conservative attempt to bring back that old 1994 Contract for America magic? Is something like that the end result?
Cantor: A certain dose of contrition is absolutely in order. Could we have done better in terms of the fiscal record? Absolutely.
But we have to come to grips with where we are, and understand that Republicans should begin to deliver again on equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. When it comes to the economy, it’s wrong for us to help those who can help themselves. We ought to be focused on helping those who cannot help themselves, and then empowering those who can to get back in the game.
This really marks a moment that demands a return to principles of accountability and responsibility that will guide these discussions we’re going to have, I don’t think we necessarily end up in another Contract for America situation, I think this is a discussion. We need to go through this. We need to have a robust discussion around conservative principles. It’s a starting point.
Eric Cantor encourages interested parties to visit the National Council for a New America.