Every year, I watch House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, hoping he’ll go beyond trite talking points and demonstrate some degree of intellectual rigor or policy depth. And every year, I’m disappointed.
But this year appearance – Cantor fielded questions from National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, who has demonstrated some degree of intellectual rigor and policy depth – included a few moments that stood out for me.
For example, Cantor noted there are millions of Americans “struggling with stagnant wages, with increasing costs of health care, energy, tuition,” which is true. The Majority Leader added that congressional Republicans “have solutions that deal with that.” I’m delighted to hear that. And what are those solutions? Cantor and his party want Americans to be thrifty – that’s his “solution.”
The Virginia Republican went on to endorse the goals of the Dream Act, which drew applause from the audience that was unaware of the fact that Cantor voted against the Dream Act. He also complained that President Obama doesn’t schmooze him enough; he continues to pretend massive spending cuts from 2011 don’t exist; and he hinted that Republicans are prepared to once again hold the debt ceiling hostage, threatening to harm Americans on purpose.
Conor Friedersdorf said whatever Cantor’s strengths may be, “communicating a compelling vision to the American people isn’t one of them.”
But there was one exchange in particular that got me thinking. Ponnuru noted Cantor’s support for increased government spending on medical research, and asked, “What do you tell your Republican colleagues who are inclined to say, ‘Look, we spent too much money as it is?’” The Majority Leader replied:
“Well, you know, it’s interesting. I really became passionate about the issue of medical research and funding for several reasons. I’ve got a father who nearly for 12 years now has suffered from a neurological disorder called Shy-Drager – very much of an orphan disease, symptoms like Lou Gehrig’s, but it lasts for a very long time. And no cures.
“I then run into a constituent – she’s now 12 – but she was years ago when she turned one, was diagnosed with a very rare form of brain cancer and had a tumor. Pediatric disease, no cure.
“And just the pure passion is us should say as human beings, it is imperative for all of us to try and dedicate ourselves to finding something that can help these people.”
I imagine most Americans would find it hard to disagree with any of this, but that’s not what made it interesting.
Listening to Cantor argue that he supports increased funding on medical research in part because of his ailing father reminded me of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) arguing in support of marriage equality because of his gay son. And Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) changing his mind about Medicaid because of his own interactions with the program. Or any number of Republican policymakers changing their mind about federal disaster relief after it’s their constituents who are hit with a brutal storm.
As I argued in March, it seems the key to American social progress in the 21st century is simple: more conservatives having more life experiences.
I realize that human nature being what it is, we’re far more inclined to take an issue seriously when we’re confronted with it in a deeply personal way. A family that never gave much thought to Multiple Sclerosis gets involved with MS fundraising once a loved one is diagnosed; a couple that was indifferent to climate change reconsiders when a storm destroys their home; a father reconsiders his opposition to abortion rights when it’s his daughter that needs to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
We’re people, so our perspectives change when we deal with unexpected life challenges. I get it.
But policymakers have unique responsibilities – they have to try to consider how every proposal will affect everyone. Their duties require expansive empathy, as they hopefully ask themselves who’ll benefit from their decision, who’ll suffer, and whether they’re prepared to accept the tradeoff. How would they vote on a measure if they knew it would do harm to someone they care about? Would their answer be different if the harm was limited to people they don’t know personally?
Cantor opposes government spending, accept the spending that’s needed to help his dad. Putting aside the fact that the sequestration cuts Cantor supports actually undermine medical research, as does the Paul Ryan budget plan Cantor voted for, shouldn’t the Majority Leader apply similar scrutiny to the rest of his governing vision?