If you hang around Twitter on a day when President Trump does something especially head-turning and Paul Ryan goes especially quiet, you’ll likely encounter some quip about how blissful John Boehner must be. Smoking cigars. Sipping Merlot. Mowing his lawn. The former House speaker has become a meme for a man unburdened.
There’s no such narrative around Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader from Richmond who was spectacularly ousted in his 2014 primary by a no-name economics professor. “There’s no denying that he misses all of it,” says Cantor’s former deputy chief of staff, John Murray—a sentiment the ex-congressman himself confirms. When he talks to Boehner, Cantor tells me, Boehner will say something to the effect of “I am so glad I’m not there dealing with those mm-mm-mms”—those pesky Freedom Caucus members whom many in the GOP hold responsible for sparking the party’s new populist flavor and egging on the anger that led to Trump’s election. Not Cantor. “I never felt like that,” he says.
The 54-year-old now sits on several boards and is managing director of Moelis & Company, a boutique investment firm in New York. His work takes him to Davos and Dubai and Tokyo, often just about anywhere but Washington or his old district. It also pays handsomely more. But Cantor is still painstakingly abreast of what’s going on in the Capitol, texting often with members such as Kevin McCarthy, his successor, and Patrick McHenry, chief deputy whip, to offer advice and then popping up on cable news to reassure Republicans that the party is just going through “growing pains.” The day the House voted on Obamacare’s replacement, Cantor chuckled at reports that former majority leader Tom DeLay was loitering near the speaker’s lobby, cigar in hand, to monitor the vote. Yet it’s safe to say that, mentally if not physically, Cantor was there, too.
If Boehner’s current profile is accurate—the warden held hostage by his own inmates, free at last—Cantor’s is the opposite, the second-in-command consumed by his role in making the Republican Party feel like a prison to begin with. What’s strange is that for all his clear-eyed ruminations about where he helped steer the party establishment wrong, he seems to believe that doing more of the same is all it’ll take to get it back on track.
Let’s back up a moment. Remember the summer of 2013, when the “Defund Obamacare Tour” drove the news cycle all through Congress’s August recess? The town halls organized by the political arm of the Heritage Foundation enlivened the base and furthered what had been the GOP’s core message since 2010—that Obamacare was bad and, if Americans helped Republicans hold both chambers, it could be repealed.
Cantor helped create that perception. Earlier that summer—after many failed attempts over the years to shred the law piecemeal—Cantor promised colleagues that the House would vote on a “full repeal.” But even after it did, the measure was dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Cantor—in Congress 13 years and, fairly or unfairly, once thought to be above electoral reproach—paid the price. His 2014 avenger, now-congressman David Brat, bludgeoned him for being soft on Obamacare, among other things. But the failure to make a dent in the law landed a bigger blow on the party. After seven years of pledging they could dismantle Obamacare, if only they had control of Congress and the White House, Republicans—at last in charge of both—have faced deep divisions over a replacement.
Asked if he feels partly responsible for their current predicament, Cantor is unequivocal. “Oh,” he says, “100 percent.”
He goes further: “To give the impression that if Republicans were in control of the House and Senate, that we could do that when Obama was still in office . . . .” His voice trails off and he shakes his head. “I never believed it.”
He says he wasn’t the only one aware of the charade: “We sort of all got what was going on, that there was this disconnect in terms of communication, because no one wanted to take the time out in the general public to even think about ‘Wait a minute—that can’t happen.’ ” But, he adds, “if you’ve got that anger working for you, you’re gonna let it be.”
It’s a stunning admission from a former member of the party leadership—that the linchpin of GOP electoral strategy for the better part of a decade was a fantasy, a flame continually fanned solely because, when it came to midterm elections, it worked. (Barring, of course, his own.)
His sojourn in the private sector has helped him see that. At Moelis, Cantor lends his Rolodex and his years on the Financial Services Committee to help the bank land accounts including Saudi Aramco—expected to be the world’s largest IPO—and giving Moelis name recognition it didn’t have three years ago.
“I see how [mergers-and-acquisitions] deals work and how companies go through processes making decisions when they decide to allocate shareholder capital,” he says. “They’ve got a vision of where their next target may be . . . and most of the times it is not a hostile situation [but] an agreeable one. They’ve got to . . . realize when the time is right to then advance to the next step. There’s something about the deliberateness and the thoughtfulness involved. That’s not necessarily how politics works. It’s a lot more extreme and back and forth.”
It’s far easier to cop to political gamesmanship when out of office. But Cantor says if he could do it over again, he wouldn’t have bought into this “expectation . . . that says if it’s not everything, then it can’t be conservative.” He pauses. “That’s a perspective I’ve gained.”
Yet here’s the other shocker: despite all that, Cantor’s read of how party leadership is navigating the current landscape is nothing short of sanguine.
While he won’t go so far as to say Trump’s presidency has been a “disaster,” as Boehner recently put it, Cantor admits he’s less than charmed by the state of the West Wing: “The lack of humility right now in the system is striking to me. I’m worried about Trump’s rhetoric. . . . If things keep going like they are now without any real progress, it’s a problem for electoral victories for our party.”
But strikingly, he won’t criticize House speaker Paul Ryan or others for not demanding a new course. Cantor does say that, were he speaker, he would “answer the questions I’m asked,” a subtle dig at Ryan’s penchant for evading Trump-related questions from the podium. But that’s as pointed as he’ll get.
Why not demand more from leadership? For one thing, Cantor is convinced that the party’s current state—the fury roiling the base and the White House alike—is an aberration. He calls the moment an “anger detour,” which sounds less like a label for a larger GOP identity crisis and more like an inconvenient square in Candy Land.
His position, however, reflects that of many in the establishment—that a pro-immigration, pro-market strain of conservatism, the one Cantor championed at the end of his tenure, is still the future of the party. It’s why he helped raise funds for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign even after his own primary defeat was seen by many to be the first sign of a populist wave to come. It’s why Cantor continues to believe that President Trump, his policies, and the discontent that wrought them are mere hiccups and that at some point they’ll all cycle out.
“It’s very captivating to a lot of people right now because of the extremes of the language, of the Twitter, of the activity, and it’s just . . . it’s really a lot about showmanship,” he says. “It could end up to all be a lot of steam that, in the end, the implementation will be a lot more consistent with what I think the party’s about.”
His logic assumes that political parties grow and change in the same way that, say, caterpillars metamorphose—organically and predictably. Perhaps in the last couple of decades, they have. But if the previous two years have reminded us of anything, it’s that parties are made up of individuals with the agency to reject the sameness prescribed by institutional monoliths and the career politicians who lead them. For the moment, those career politicians—Ryan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—have been amenable to the disruption, suddenly equivocating on long-held establishment views regarding issues such as trade. Which makes Cantor’s point that much more difficult to absorb: How, exactly, can the party cycle out of something when its leaders publicly insist everything is just fine?
He doesn’t have an answer for that. “Being in a leadership position is hard,” he says. “Paul’s got a really tough challenge right now. Really, really tough.”
Cantor may be fuzzy on the details of getting there, but he knows what normality would look like. For him, it’s acknowledging that, undesirable as something in the system might be vis-à-vis, say, health care or welfare, sweeping changes can do more harm than good—an incrementalist manifestation of conservatism touted by Edmund Burke, that 18th-century British Parliament crush of modern American conservatives.
Where Cantor used to be chided as the prince of political crazes, oscillating in his pet issues depending on party mood, he’s now unequivocal that “global supply chains interconnect,” that they’re “here” and “not going away.” He says “our country is one of immigrants,” that “we don’t hold kids liable for their parents’ illegal acts.”
Never mind that these are beliefs that the most Republican primary voters in history rejected just last year. All it takes, Cantor will tell you, is for party leadership to do what it’s been doing—to keep quiet, hold its breath, and watch the party return from the anger detour.
But what if he’s wrong?
“God help us,” Cantor says. “Because how does it end?”
This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Washingtonian.