So how did he get away with it[ for so long? A lot of it was old-fashioned branding: Cantor the young gun, who went out of his way to present himself as a no-nonsense champion of the little guy on talk shows, television commercials, and press releases. Then there was the media. Reporters tend to be not just lazy, economically illiterate, and incurious about the way Congress really works, but especially ignorant about conservatives and conservatism, pretty much regarding the entire right as Neanderthaland.
In Cantor’s case, the mainstream media readily bought his self-generated image as an unwavering conservative. Cantor’s hometown paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, called him the “high-visibility point man for Republican resistance to President Barack Obama on issues such as taxes, deficit reduction and health care.” Indeed, in 2012, much of the media blamed the bitter debt ceiling negotiations on, as NPR had it, “Cantor’s no-compromise tactics . . . and his fiercely loyal Tea Party-fueled caucus members.”
In fact, the ruse was so effective that for a time even the Tea Party bought it. After all, few in Congress talked so persuasively about the need for deregulation and smaller government; besides which—the ultimate merit badge for conservative good conduct—Obama despised him. And why not? Hadn’t Cantor been so firm holding the line on raising taxes in the 2011 negotiations preceding the sequester that Joe Biden finally walked out on him[?
Yet even then, for anyone who bothered to look closely, Eric Cantor was one of the poster boys for all that was rotten in the modern Republican Party, a man who took on the protective coloring of honest conservatism to rise (and personally profit) in public office, while quietly pursuing the classic RINO path of accommodation with big business and behind-the-scenes surrender to big-government Dems.
Including on the debt—where in the end, he caved.
And on Benghazi, where he and Boehner were the two responsible for long blocking an investigation into the malfeasance that led to the tragedy.
Where voters were concerned, Cantor had one overriding aim: Make sure they focus on what I say, not on what I do.
When did the realization of who this guy really was finally sink in? It began to happen in the district long before it happened nationally. The conservative activists in the Seventh District are pretty savvy to start with, and of course they were keeping a lot closer eye on their guy than the Washington herd—and more and more evidence was piling up that he just reeked of phoniness.
The first major tip-off was back in 2008 with his support for TARP—aka the Wall Street bailouts. It signaled the extent to which Cantor was in bed with those who cared more about lining their own pockets than the welfare of the country. If banking executives’ taking taxpayer money and TARP funds—along with bonuses rebranded as “retention payments”—wasn’t bad enough, among the chief banks chosen to be bailed out even while so many community banks went under was Goldman Sachs, where Mrs. Eric Cantor happened to have previously worked.
Indeed, Eric and Diana Cantor were the ultimate power couple--real power, not the empty kind celebrated in People magazine. Diana sat on multiple corporate boards, where there tended to be something of a gap between the compensation and the workload. As the National Journal observed in 2013 of the labors of Mrs. Cantor on behalf of Domino’s Pizza, “Domino’s has delivered cash, stock and stock options currently worth more than $3 million to Diana Cantor since October 2005—all for her part-time work as a director.” Meanwhile, she was simultaneously working for the Virginia Retirement System, in charge of funnelling Virginia Retirement System money to selective hedge funds and banks on Wall Street. Asked by the magazine[ to comment on his wife’s relationship with Domino’s, Cantor blandly replied: “I’m very proud of Diana, who over the past thirty years has built a tremendous business career while raising our three wonderful children. She is an example to all aspiring young women and working mothers who want to study hard, work hard, and achieve great things.”
Small banks certainly weren’t too big to fail, and family businesses did not get bailed out—just Cantor’s friends. It stank to high heaven.
Then there were his votes on the debt. Through the Bush years and up into the Obama administration, Cantor voted to raise the debt ceiling ten out of fourteen times--and the only times he voted against it were the years Republicans were in the minority, meaning there was no question it would pass anyway, meaning those brave “no” votes were just for show. When it counted, he folded every time, voting against the people—and for Wall Street.
The truth is, Cantor had little more interest in reducing spending than liberal Democrats. For a guy like Cantor, as for other RINOs, fiscal responsibility is a pose; the hard votes show that his heart was never in it. There’s no way it would happen on his watch, especially not if it meant facing up to an ideologue like Obama.
But what truly exposed Cantor for who he is was the creation, in 2010, of Heritage Action, as the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation. Heritage Action began scrutinizing legislators’ votes on key conservative measures, looking at the fine print of amendments and paying particular attention to measures where crony capitalism might be at play—those that enabled supposedly red meat conservative legislators to screw their constituents while quietly feathering their own nests. In brief, Heritage Action started snooping around in what might be called Cantor World.
Eric Cantor’s Heritage Action score turned out to be a lowly 53 percent.
You read that right. The House majority leader received an F– from one of America’s leading conservative groups. With Republican leadership like that, who needs Democrats?
Around the same time, 60 Minutes ran a segment on the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act—the “STOCK Act”—designed to curtail the appalling, yet longstanding, practice whereby members of Congress traded on insider knowledge. For instance, if the Pentagon was about to purchase 500,000 BlackBerry smartphones, it had hitherto been entirely legal for a member of Congress to buy BlackBerry stock based on that knowledge. This new legislation was supposedly designed to curtail this abuse, which, of course, would land any ordinary citizen in jail. Once Obama signed the legislation, the matter seemed settled.
Except three months later, it came to light that just before passage, a certain powerful congressman—guess which one—had inserted an amendment into the bill, garbling its language, thereby allowing family members to continue trading on congressional knowledge:
“Cantor’s office insisted it did nothing to change the intent of the STOCK Act. But when pressed with the new information uncovered by CNN, the majority leader’s office conceded it made changes to the House bill that effectively took out the requirement for spouses and children to file these reports.”[CE7]
Arrogant? The term doesn’t begin to do Cantor justice.
Meanwhile, as Cantor’s power and celebrity grew, he paid less and less attention to his own district, rarely bothering to make the two-hour drive south to attend festivals or town halls; when he did, he rolled up in a fleet of black SUVs with tinted windows. Cantor was far more likely to be fundraising in Los Angeles or the Hamptons than in Hanover or Henrico. If you were lucky enough to gain entry to a town hall, you were not allowed to ask questions.
By 2014, on the eve of Dave Brat’s campaign, Cantor was as isolated from his constituency as Nicholas II was before the Russian Revolution—and equally.surrounded by yes-men, ever ready to reassure him that everything was fine.
Rumblings of discontent in the district? The possibility of a serious challenge? Nothing to worry about—just a few right-wing nut job peasants.