Eric Cantor Loses the Tent at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 2 2013 6:50 PM

Thought Leader, Lead Thyself

Eric Cantor and his business suit mingle at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

U.S. Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) takes part in a panel discussion titled "The Awesome Responsibility of Leadership" at the Milken Institute Global Conference.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, seen here in California in April, spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado this week.

Photo by Gus Ruelas/Reuters

ASPEN, Colo.—The name of the building was the “Benedict Music Tent,” which undersold it. Around 2,000 people can find seats in the structure, a kind of secular megachurch. When the Aspen Ideas Festival isn’t in town, it hosts Lexus-smooth guitar-man musicians such as Ben Harper and Jackson Browne. On Saturday, it welcomed the rarest guest: a guy wearing a suit and tie.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was comfortably out of place. His audience, wealthy people in colorful shorts, was largely happy that Barack Obama was president, largely convinced that climate change was the reason the greater Southwest was melting this week, and pretty well convinced that Congress needed to pass the Simpson–Bowles plan to save America. Some of them had been convinced of this by Simpson and Bowles themselves when they showed up in Aspen, sans ties.

These people wanted Washingtonians to work together; National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru eased Cantor in by asking about his relationship with the president.

“The charm offensive that has been largely reported by most news outlets—one could look, to see, perhaps, some evidence that it exists,” said Cantor. It was all right in the beginning, but “what has since transpired is a success that has not yet been realized. From a personal perspective, what I can tell you is I don’t feel I speak to the president enough to try and resolve differences and work problems out.”

Good answer for this room—if only people talked to each other! And ever since Republicans lost the 2012 election, Cantor, more than any other member of its leadership, has worked to rebrand the party as an army of thought leaders who hear what you’re saying. In a February speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Cantor identified crises in health care and immigration and tax law, insisting that “colleagues in both chambers of Congress on both sides of the aisle have begun work in good faith to address these issues.”

They never moved past the starting line. In April, House Republicans nixed a vote on a Cantor-backed Healthy Americans Act, an Obamacare tweak that would have created high-risk pools with the money now earmarked for preventive care. In June, Cantor joined conservative Republicans and backed an amendment to the farm bill that would have added work requirements for food stamp recipients. That amendment helped bring down the bill.

Ponnuru mentioned some of this, but Cantor waved off the details. “Every week we are passing legislation in the House, sending it to the Senate,” he said. (“Sending” is a nice way to put it—the bills, such as June’s “fetal pain” legislation, are DOA.) When asked about immigration, Cantor insisted that his House really was working on the legislation, whatever the audience might have been told on NPR.

“There have already been five bills we've seen marked up in committee that will be sent to the floor,” said Cantor. “There was a bill that had to do with agricultural workers, guest workers who had to come to the country and have the ability to do so. A bill very relevant to some of the discussions here at Aspen about how do we encourage more skilled workers to be here, how do we finally get that ‘staple the green card to the diploma’ rule into law, so that we don't see highly skilled foreign nationals with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees from our universities fleeing this country, taking their venture capital with them. And many other bills on employer enforcement, border enforcement, interior enforcement. And then we'll get to the very difficult issues that we've got to resolve. One of those I feel very passionately about, and that's the kids.”

This was a revealing answer. Back in February, in his omnibus speech about a GOP that could “make life work,” Cantor mentioned the Aspen-friendly skilled-worker stuff, but he didn’t say immigration reform would start there. “A good place to start,” he’d said, “is with the kids.” He’d tried to be a thought leader, but the Republican conference wasn’t led.

It’s tricky to read 2,000 minds at a conference, and there was no pollster stopping people between the David H. Koch Building and the Fuller Dome, but the elites weren’t blown away by Cantor. Honestly, multiple people mentioned that he’d worn a full suit, and a subset of these people had expected to be more impressed. You can’t walk out of a session on driverless cars and expect to be wowed by a lecture about how something as obvious as immigration reform can’t pass. “You want to hear a big idea?” asked Obed Aboodi, a financier leaving a later session on “What The Market Tells Us About the Economy.” Sure. Here’s his idea: “Get rid of the states. No states, no districts. If you elect politicians nationally, you don’t have these sort of local politicians pandering and stopping progress.”

But for now you do. On Sunday, a tie-less Cantor wearing a step-counting bracelet joined his second session, titled “A Seismic Shift in Our Schools: College Prep, Career Readiness, and the Common Core Revolution.” In the states, Republicans are in open rebellion over the idea of national curriculum standards. That’s not Cantor’s problem, really, but on a panel of liberal education thinkers he had the least to say. Joel Klein would finish a stem-winder about the need for national standards; Cantor would follow him with something agreeable.

“Teachers should be a priority,” he said. “What about the teachers who aren’t teaching? What about those who aren’t doing the job? I have to believe there are contracts, there are agreements in place, that really restrict the ability for these leaders to be able to make sure that good teachers are there. We have to prioritize it, like Joel says, and we have to give the flexibility to the leadership in the states and the local school districts to make sure the good teachers are rewarded and the others are moved out.”

This was pretty conservative, but totally separate from the sins of Congress. It got applause. “Yes,” said Lynda Resnick, the Aspen trustee moderating the panel. “Amen!”

After the panel, as he cut a path to an interview about technology grants and the NSA scandal, I checked in to see whether Cantor was enjoying himself. He was outnumbered, definitely, and he didn’t usually speak to audiences that could recite David Brooks columns in order.

“My whole takeaway here is they’ve gotta have more balance in Aspen,” Cantor said. “If they’re really going to have an impact on the greater political environment across the country, they need to. This is a bit like an echo chamber.”