Confronted by a huge financial problem that could well slip the weak economy back into recession, Eric Cantor, Richmond’s Boy Wonder of Washington politics, went for himself instead of us. In the past couple of weeks, the House majority leader from Henrico County has simultaneously played to the fringe elements of the political right as an anti-tax, anti-Washington zealot while slyly helping his real constituents, such as rich hedge-fund investors and powerful managed care companies.
These aren’t exactly times for political games. If the nation’s debt ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 3, federal debt would be downgraded. That would have disastrous effects, as evidenced by similar problems in Italy, Greece, Ireland and other countries. Confidence in the United States would be shaken. Our anemic recovery, which produced nearly zero jobs in May and June, could well slip back into negative growth and, bingo, we’re back in 2008.
Raising the federal debt ceiling isn’t exactly an isolated crisis. It’s been raised 89 times through the years. President Barack Obama wonders if Social Security and Medicare checks, upon which millions of Americans depend, would go out Aug. 3.
From the day Obama was inaugurated, the Republican Party suddenly discovered fiscal discipline. Never mind that former President George W. Bush managed to raise the debt from $5.8 trillion in March 2001 to $9.6 trillion when he left office, thanks in large part to two unpaid wars, changes in Medicare pharmacy programs and tax cuts for the rich. Obama, confronted with the worst recession since the Great Depression, has taken it north another $5 trillion or so, bringing the federal debt to about $14 trillion.
Obama somehow must deal with reeling in the debt without crashing the economy, which would make it more difficult still to deal with debt and deficit issues, not to mention cause pain for millions of Americans.
In other words, it’s time for statesmanship, not childish tantrums. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what we’ve seen from Cantor. He stormed out when Vice President Joe Biden tried to hack out a deal and, in another meeting, he sunk his Chihuahua teeth into Obama’s ankles over little details. When the adults of the GOP, such as House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell tried to come with a grand bargain that would link spending cuts with raising the debt ceiling in a way both sides could accept, Cantor torpedoed it.
Ambitious Eric may be getting a lot of hits on Google by Americans who’ve never heard of him before, but his less-than-attractive personality traits also are on display. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has trashed Cantor’s “snarl,” in which he curls his lip on the left side and then launches into something arrogant. “He draws out the vowels in a style that is part southern, part smarty-pants. Had young Cantor spoken like this at his prep school in Richmond, the bigger boys might well have wiped that sneer off his face. Yet even then, Cantor was accustomed to having things his way,” Milbank writes.
He’s never been challenged, to speak of. The Richmond Times-Dispatch is his biggest promoter. His wife is on the board of Media General, which owns the paper. When questions came up that the GOP leadership was highly annoyed with Cantor’s loose-cannon antics, the T-D promptly reassured us in a front-page story that “Cantor receives Boehner’s support.” It reminds me of my days as a Moscow correspondent when Pravda told us there were no problems inside the Politburo.
So what’s Cantor’s point? He’s trying to have it both ways. First, he was stung during last fall’s nasty elections by allegations from the successful tea party movement that he was little more than a pro-business toady. Cantor now is trying to run to the head of the tea-party parade to be its zealous, anti-tax leader, forgetting, conveniently, that he voted for every spending plan Bush offered.
Another reason is that Cantor is protecting his campaign donors who are (in order) the securities and investment communities, real estate, insurance and managed care. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, such big-name financial houses as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, the Bank of America and Capital One Financial are among his biggest donors. Boehner’s grand bargain could well have added a 15-percent capital gains rate on managers of hedge funds, where investors have to be millionaires to play. The rich would have tax cuts. For our Gucci-wearing young gun from Richmond’s wealthy West End, that’s a big no-no.
So how are Cantor’s erratic ploys playing with the Main Street crowd? His mentor, former Congressman Tom Bliley, worries that he might alienating independents. In any event, momentum is back on for a budget deal. But it won’t include Cantor, who will be remembered for blowing his big chance.
Peter Galuszka is a contributing editor for Style Weekly.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.