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Cantor's incomplete vision

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor watches House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., October 23, 2013.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor watches House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., October 23, 2013.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) doesn't have much in the way of a legislative record, but he's invested an enormous amount of time and energy into "rebranding" campaigns, launching four initiatives in four years. They haven't gone well, but the Virginia Republican keeps at it anyway.
A closer look at Cantor's rebranding efforts reveals a consistent theme: the Majority Leader believes he and his party have credible solutions to existing problems, and the GOP must make more of an effort to emphasize the party's pragmatism. This came up the other day when Cantor sat down the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Republicans, he said, need to change the perception that they don't care about everyday Americans, a task made tougher by Democrats perpetually promising bigger handouts and more government mandates, as if there are no costs in life. [...] The GOP, Cantor said, needs to be able to answer a basic question: "How do we address the fundamental problems that people have?" In an extended era of flat wages and anemic job growth, he said his party should focus on "upward mobility and opportunity," with an emphasis on practical matters that can stretch the family budget and juice the U.S. economy, such as increased domestic energy production, online education, college affordability and low taxes.

Now, we can certainly have a spirited debate about the merits of Cantor's ideas and his condemnations of progressive governance, but for now, let's instead focus on the Majority Leader's basic ambition. He thinks Republicans have practical solutions to the issues Americans care about. Fine.
So why has Cantor struggled to convince his GOP brethren to follow his lead and stress this approach to conservative governance? There's a fair amount to this, but I think there are two broad angles to keep in mind.
First, contemporary Republicans, especially in Congress, just don't seem to have any appetite for governing at all. As we discussed just yesterday, today's GOP lawmakers aren't interested in pursuing pragmatic solutions to existing policies because today's GOP lawmakers aren't interesting in pursuing much of anything. One House Republican said this week, "I ran on a government that did less." House Speaker John Boehner himself has said he wants Congress to be judged on its ability to undo existing policies, rather than approving new laws.
Cantor, in other words, is effectively telling his colleagues, "Let's try pushing conservative solutions to the questions Americans care about." To which Republican lawmakers reply, "Let's try doing nothing." They're not exactly compatible.
Second, there's a blind spot in Cantor's approach that he's never been fully able to address. When it comes to Republican governance, ideology is a hurdle that (a) is hard to overcome; and (b) doesn't exist on the left.
For example, let's say Congress is poised to tackle a national issue and lawmakers are searching for the best possible solution. We know -- because they've said so -- that Republicans will begin the debate by arguing they'll reject policies that increase the size of government and/or raise taxes. But what it the ideal, most pragmatic answer involves more government or higher taxes? It doesn't matter -- if the solution is in conflict with the party's ideology, than GOP policymakers simply aren't interested.
And that's a problem because it makes pragmatism extremely difficult. The party is ruling out a series of solutions, reflexively, regardless of the merits.
Republicans could, as Cantor urges, respond to the question, "How do we address the fundamental problems that people have?" But their answers are narrow, incomplete, and driven entirely by ideology, not practicality.