This afternoon, House Republicans will meet behind closed doors on Capitol Hill to choose a new leadership team. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) will stay in place, but in about four or five hours, the House will have a new Majority Leader and Majority Whip.
Before the team takes shape, it’s worth pausing to reflect on outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who’s stunning primary loss set the shake-up in motion.
What kind of legacy does Cantor leave behind? The Onion, true to form, summarized the conservative lawmaker’s record quite nicely: “Looking back on his 13-year tenure in the House of Representatives with reverence, resigning House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) reflected on the long list of accomplishments he had thwarted during his time in office.”
The Virginia Republican is not without defenders, though. National Review’s Stephen Moore last week characterized Cantor, his “personal friend” and the “Rodney Dangerfield of American politics,” as “underappreciated.”
First, for those friends on the right who say that Eric Cantor is a sellout or insufficiently conservative, his track record speaks for itself. When he became majority leader of the House, the budget deficit was $1.4 trillion, and potentially headed to $2 trillion as the Left called for more “stimulus.” It was the House Republicans who brought that spending and borrowing binge to a screeching halt. The deficit is now $400 billion, a $1 trillion improvement.Federal spending has fallen over the three years Mr. Cantor has been the House leader. That’s the first time it’s dropped since the 1950s…. No one on Capitol Hill is singularly more responsible for that remarkable improvement than Eric Cantor.
Moore’s piece added that Americans can “thank” Cantor “for the sequester,” which the **National Review writer described as “the biggest conservative policy victory in a decade.”
And that’s it. That’s the list that Cantor’s “personal friend” and admirer came up with.
My goal certainly isn’t to kick a guy when he’s down. The Virginia Republican suffered an embarrassing defeat in his home district, at the hands of voters in his own party, which he apparently didn’t see coming. There’s no point in twisting the knife.
But National Review’s list of Cantor’s successes nevertheless tell us something important about the right’s ideology.
Look at Moore’s list again:
1. Cantor helped shrink the deficit. I suppose there’s some truth to that, though I find it fairly amusing that when most Republicans talk about the annual budget shortfall, they pretend it’s solely President Obama’s responsibility – except when it shrinks. But as a policy matter, what the economy needed was policymakers to focus on growth and job creation, not deficit reduction. In this sense, Moore is praising Cantor for focusing on a problem that didn’t need solving, at least not at the time.
2. Cantor helped cut spending. This, too, is largely true, but these spending cuts, by every measure, helped undermine economic growth and weakened the recovery.
3. Cantor was responsible for the sequester. Yes, but the sequestration policy did real, measurable harm to the country. Indeed, Cantor himself condemned the sequester that his friend now calls “the biggest conservative policy victory in a decade.”
This reinforces the thesis about the asymmetry that helps define the left-right divide in the Obama era. For much of the left, political priorities are inherently practical: expanding access to medical care, making higher education more affordable, making the air cleaner, etc. For the much of the right, political priorities are inherently ideological: shrinking government for the sake of shrinking government, cutting spending for the sake of cutting spending, etc.
Cantor’s legacy is a reminder of this unevenness. He’s praised for deficit reduction and spending cuts, as if they’re self-evidently worthwhile, even when they’re literally the exact opposite of what the country needed from Cantor and his allies.
It’s quite a legacy, indeed.