Making Republicans seem less Republican

Updated
 

We talked yesterday about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) latest “rebranding” initiative – his fourth in four years – including a speech at a conservative Washington think tank. How’d it go? You can watch the entirety of Cantor’s remarks above, but there was something E.J. Dionne told Rachel last night that struck me as especially interesting.

“[I]f you read Eric Cantor`s speech, the terms of that speech were progressive terms. The question he was asking was, ‘What can government do to help make people`s lives better?’ That’s not the old Republican question. The old Republican question was, ‘How can we create a smaller government? How can we cut taxes on those job creators, the rich people?’”

Quite right. Two weeks ago, President Obama delivered an inaugural address focused on Americans acting together through government to help guarantee shared prosperity and opportunity. And yesterday, the conservative House Majority Leader delivered a speech of his own in which he, too, sees government as a tool to help make a material difference in Americans’ lives.

At least rhetorically, this is a departure from the recent debate. The GOP line in the Obama era has been that government is necessarily wrong, inefficient, and fundamentally incapable of improving much of anything. Americans, the argument goes, shouldn’t look to the public sector for support; they should look to themselves, the free market, and Ayn Rand novels.

Cantor’s speech pointed in a different direction. His rebranding initiative, presumably based on a fair amount of polling data, is apparently focused on making Republicans seem less Republican. And given his party’s abysmal public support, that might not be such a bad idea.

The next question, though, is whether the rhetoric is consistent with reality.

Not surprisingly, this is where Cantor’s speech came up short. In fairness, the Virginia Republican proposed that his party take a more constructive course on immigration policy, which was a genuine, pleasant change of pace. Indeed, Cantor seemed to endorse the general tenets of the Dream Act, which represented quite a reversal – Cantor himself has voted against the legislation in the recent past.

But on literally everything else, the Majority Leader took told GOP ideas, stuck them in the microwave for a minute, and tried to pretend he’d prepared a fresh meal. Cantor still wants to repeal “Obamacare,” fund private school vouchers, and encourage colleges to “provide prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major.”

At its core, the Republican agenda is still the Republican agenda. Slightly different packaging is irrelevant, and the fact that Cantor’s speech was so thin reinforces the perception that the party isn’t really prepared to change much of any thing, their recent defeats notwithstanding.

Cantor seems to realize that another “government is evil” speech is pointless – for all the assumptions about the “center-right nation,” he realizes that the American mainstream sees a role for a healthy public sector that promotes the general welfare. But the problem with this latest rebranding campaign is that Cantor wants to present a Republican agenda that will “benefit families across the nation,” but he can’t fill in the blanks.

There’s a reason for this, which the right generally prefers not to admit: conservatism isn’t an effective governing philosophy when it comes to using government to make a positive material difference in the lives of working families. Cantor spent 45 minutes trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, and it was ultimately unsatisfying because his pitch lacked any kind of persuasive depth.

Dionne is entirely right that Cantor now seems inclined to fight on Democrats’ turf – both sides can tell voters how they intend to use government effectively to bolster the middle class, and the electorate can choose the vision they prefer. But if Cantor’s pitch is the best Republicans can offer, the GOP is in deep trouble.

Eric Cantor

Making Republicans seem less Republican

Updated