My friends, hello! I’m back from my brief time off, feeling rejuvenated and creatively inspired — and well-versed in daytime courtroom television reruns. (Side note: Did you know Star Jones hosts "Divorce Court"?)
Anyway, one realization I had during my vacation is that people from your past sometimes show up in the present and teach you important lessons. As I returned to work this week, it struck me that Kevin McCarthy ought to keep this in mind as he negotiates with far-right members of the House, who appear dead set on refusing to fund the government unless the speaker agrees to pass spending bills that hack away at an array of critical federal services. (Some of these bills stand virtually no chance of passing in the Democratic-led Senate.)
There’s been a ghost, so to speak, from McCarthy’s political past urging him against giving in to the far right’s wishes. That is, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who once served alongside McCarthy before he was surprisingly ousted by a more conservative primary challenger in 2014.
Along with McCarthy, Cantor was once considered a rising star in the House and he knows all about the political ramifications of government shutdowns. He and McCarthy were both in leadership in 2013 (McCarthy as majority whip) when Republicans forced a shutdown in an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
And in recent weeks, Cantor has issued statements to the media warning Republicans that they’ll likely bear the brunt of public criticism if the government is forced to shut down because of GOP intransigence.
Here’s what he told Politico earlier this month:
I look back to the time when we first started this kind of thing in 2013, and at that point, it was a much clearer fight that we were engaged in. That was the fight over the beginning of Obamacare. The real impetus for the shutdown in 2013 was to stop Obamacare from taking hold — but it was a completely ill-conceived plan, because Obamacare was law at that point, so there was nothing we were going to do by shutting down the government to stop that from taking place.
Polling data from 2013 found that Americans placed more blame on Republicans than on Democrats for the shutdown. In the Politico interview, Cantor expressed skepticism that current House Republicans could even agree on a singular issue to use as a bargaining chip in the same way many Republicans agreed to target Obamacare with the 2013 shutdown.
He reflected more in an interview with CNBC on Friday, calling it “crazy” for Republicans back then to think they would “beat President Obama into submission” with the shutdown. Cantor said current Republicans are using a similar tactic today.
“Increasingly, what you’re seeing now is ... the faction in the House which just won’t accept the reality of divided government,” he said of so-called MAGA Republicans in the House. He referenced Republican politicians — like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — who he said are using the potential of a looming shutdown to increase and rile up their social media clout. By hurtling the nation toward a shutdown, Cantor said, House Republicans are “shooting I think the country in the foot [and] they are shooting the Republican Party in the foot."
All of this underscores the predicament McCarthy has created for himself. In his bid to become speaker, he agreed to House rules that make it easy for conservative lawmakers to remove him from leadership if he defies them. But Cantor has seen what happens when you acquiesce to shutdown demands from right-wingers. And he’s a living, cautionary tale for McCarthy: Even if he gives these extremists the shutdown they want, he may still end up getting the blame — and the boot, as well.