Obama and Cantor: Political Scorpions in a Bottle
Policy + Politics

Obama and Cantor: Political Scorpions in a Bottle

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Regardless of how the  high octane debt ceiling talks ultimately turn out, the enduring  image will be of a highly peeved President Obama declaring “enough is enough” and stalking out of a negotiating session at the White House Wednesday evening after yet another nasty exchange with Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The self-proclaimed “Young Gun” and chief spokesman of House conservatives and Tea Party adherents had been hectoring the president to show his hand and reveal the details of spending cuts he was willing to support. Then the Virginia Republican proposed something he knew Obama would never go along with—namely a short-term extension of the Treasury’s borrowing authority that would force the president and Congress to revisit the politically poisonous controversy closer to the 2012 election. When Obama snapped “Eric, don’t call my bluff” and abruptly ended the meeting, Cantor rushed back to the Capitol to inform reporters that the president had lost his cool.

Not since Democratic President Bill Clinton tangled with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia  and Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas  back in the mid-1990s has there been so much bad blood between a sitting Democratic president and a powerful House Republican leader, with huge budget and economic consequences hanging in the balance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a member of the bipartisan bargaining team, berated Cantor in an unprecedented. Senate speech Thursday morning, saying Cantor “has shown he couldn’t be at the table, and Republicans agree he shouldn’t be at the table.”

While Democratic and Republican tongues wagged over the extraordinary breach of decorum at the White House meeting, Cantor no doubt could care less. In representing the fast mushrooming conservative wing of his party, Cantor was merely carrying out his role as chief GOP bomb thrower and critic of the Obama administration, much as his one-time political benefactor, the disgraced House Republican leader Tom DeLay, performed.

“I think that Cantor’s ideology is driven as
much by a fierce personal ambition – one
that is warn on the sleeve as much as any
political figure I think I have ever seen.”

Norman J.  Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the right-tilting American Enterprise Institute and one of the most knowledgeable students of congressional politics, said that in more than 30 years of research he has rarely seen a congressional leader who was as driven as Cantor to advance his party’s agenda and his own personal political fortunes.  He said that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “is a strong conservative but he’s pragmatic enough to know when it’s time to cut a deal.”

“Cantor  is more of an ideologue, and I’ll tell you, I think that ideology is driven as much by a fierce personal ambition – one that is  as great and warn on the sleeve as much as any political figure I think I have ever seen, ”  he said,

That Cantor has been unstintingly confrontational with Obama and the Democrats is without question. Last month, for example, he pulled out of a small bipartisan group of six House and Senate negotiators headed by Vice President Joseph Biden after Biden tried to bring up discussion of tax increases along with spending cuts. Cantor said that discussing taxes was “above my pay grade,” and that it was time for Boehner and the president to step in.

But when words leaked out last Thursday that Obama and Boehner were secretly crafting a $4 trillion package of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and tax increases, Cantor and other House conservatives went ballistic and insisted that the House speaker pull back.  After practically shoving Boehner aside as chief negotiator for House Republicans,  Cantor complained at a White House meeting on Tuesday that the Democrats had leaked his presentation from the previous day on cutting Medicare while the president yet to share his ideas on paper. The president replied that he had assumed that talking to Boehner was tantamount to communicating with the Republican conference. Obama finally lost his patience with Cantor on Wednesday night, pushed back from the table and left the room.

Back at the Capitol that evening, Cantor told reporters outside the House chamber that the nearly two-hour meeting “ended with the president abruptly walking out,” adding that: “I know why he lost his temper. He’s frustrated. We’re all frustrated.”

Ornstein said it was bad form for a House leader to publicly reveal details of high-level budget talks at the White House, and that Cantor’s performance was a blatant breach of political etiquette. “Whether you like or dislike the President, he’s the President of the United States and you’re meeting at the White House,” he said. “Interrupting the President, being disrespectful of the President is going to grate everybody the wrong way.”

“Cantor and Obama are more alike than many
think, and neither one handles criticism well.”

Administration officials later put out the word that Cantor’s account of what happened at the White House was overblown. So it’s not completely clear whether the incident was just the competitive head butting of two prep school and Ivy League-educated elitists, or whether Cantor is waging ideological warfare on behalf of his party to topple the president and advance his own, oversized ambitions. Those ambitions could well include the House Speakership, Virginia governorship or – yes—presidency of the United States.

But Brian Darling, a senior fellow for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says there’s more to the tension than simply bad behavior by Cantor. While the two men are quite different stylistically and politically, each one believes he is a master of the universe and right in his views and beliefs.

“Cantor and Obama are more alike than many think, and neither one handles criticism well,” Darling said.  “When you have two people who bristle at criticism and they get in the same room, they’re not going to get along. “I just think you have President Obama and Eric Cantor representing very different interests and two individuals who are not willing to give up much of anything in negotiations.”

If all else failed in seeking common ground,
both are thin, angular guys who love basketball.

On the surface, at least, Obama, 49, and Cantor, 48, are archenemies who have at least a few things in common that might have provided fodder for small talk and chitchat. Both are relatively young political leaders, both went to law school,  both are  shrewd strategists who leapfrogged over more veteran politicians to obtain high office, and both are family men with young children to brag about. And if all else failed in seeking common ground, both are thin, angular guys who love basketball.

But unlike Obama’s friendship with the 61-year-old Boehner, which was forged over a weekend round of golf and frequent private meetings and meals, Obama and Cantor are like two scorpions in a bottle whenever they are in the same room. The two ambitious, highly successful politicians represent the best and the brightest of two fiercely opposed ideological camps – and at stake may be the direction the country takes.

“They’re like two prize fighters going into the ring and duking it out – both fighting to the end in a very close match,” Darling of Heritage said. “They both clearly are willing to fight each other and not give in an inch and see who wins in the battle field of public opinion.”

While the centrist Obama has pushed for a middle course of deep spending and entitlement program  cuts and some tax increases to address the nation’s 14.3 trillion debt – with the goal of reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over the coming decade-- Cantor has refused to consider any form of tax increases and repeatedly has sought to torpedo the talks. In the process, Cantor has managed to embarrass and neutralize Boehner’s effectiveness by forcing him last Saturday to pull back from negotiations with Obama over a “grand bargain.”

Obama and Cantor’s styles couldn’t be more different.  Obama comes out of the political milieu of suburban Chicago, a community teeming with liberal Democratic University of Chicago academics and community activists and organizers. Since taking office two-and-a-half years ago, the former Illinois state legislator and U.S. senator has pushed through an agenda of major health care reform, financial regulatory reform, and economic stimulus that Cantor and others have written off as a failure.

Cantor, by contrast, comes from a highly conservative southern Virginia district in the Richmond area that is adjacent to military bases.  His father owned a real estate firm and was the state treasurer for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign.   Cantor graduated from Richmond’s tony Collegiate School in 1981, and then enrolled at George Washington University.

“Cantor has presented himself as
a kind of a factional leader—the future
of the Republican Party—in contrast to
Boehner’s strength, which is making deals.”

As a freshman, he worked as an intern for then House Republican Tom Bliley of Virginia and was Bliley’s driver in the 1982 campaign. Later he earned his law degree at William & Mary Law School and received a Master of Science degree from Columbia University – which Obama also attended. 

Cantor served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992 to January 2000, when he launched a campaign for the House seat being vacated by his political ally and friend Tom Bliley.  He won the election and quickly rose in the Republican ranks -- putting him in perfect position to claim the majority leader post when the Republicans won control of the House last November.

Cantor and Obama share another distinction:  Each is a member of a minority that typically has not been in the red-hot circle of Washington power politics. As the only Jewish member of the House Republican conference, Cantor is the antithesis of the stereotypical liberal Jewish politician on social and economic issues – with the exception of his hawkish support of aid to Israel. Cantor and Obama have also crossed swords over Middle East policy, with Cantor highly critical of the president’s efforts to push Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority.

“Cantor has presented himself as a kind of a factional leader—the future of the Republican Party—in contrast to Boehner’s strength, which is making deals,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “He seems to have taken on the mantle of the guy who breaks deals or obstructs deals. The subtext is this is a guy who doesn’t do business as usual, and that has broad appeal beyond the House of Representatives. I mean, this is somebody whose ambitions transcend the House of Representatives. And he’s gotten a flying start.”

By contrast, Baker notes, Obama regularly tends to steer a middle course on budget and economic issues, much to the chagrin of party liberals. While pushing for an historic plan for reducing the deficit by as much as $4 trillion over the coming decade, Obama cautions that government spending is still essential to try to jump start the economy -- and that deep spending cuts should be delayed for at least another year.

“Eric is the sort of person who
works from morning until night -- he’ll
out-organize and out-maneuver anybody.”

Obama has regularly treated Cantor as the junior partner in the House GOP leadership, while heaping praise on Boehner for being more reasonable and open to compromise (a tactic that probably has hurt Boehner more than helped him with his party). Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank this week portrayed the nerdy looking Cantor as a smug, self-serving ideologue with a curling upper lip.  The Senate Democratic Policy and Communications pulled this Cantor quotation from his high school yearbook: “I want what I want when I want it.”

As Reid’s remarks on the Senate floor indicate, Democrats are becoming bolder in challenging Cantor, in an apparent bid to try to isolate him from the debt ceiling talks. Unless the White House and congressional Republican and Democratic leaders reach a compromise to raise the debt ceiling by August 2, the Treasury warns that it likely will begin defaulting on U.S. debt and government spending obligations.

But Cantor is right where he wants to be politically, closely allied with the Tea Party and two other rising House stars --Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Whip Kevin McCarthy.  And just when it looked as if Cantor had gone too far, he and Boehner seemingly patched things up Thursday, with a beaming Boehner declaring that any suggestion that Cantor has been “anything less than helpful is wrong.”  Yet during Thursday’s session at the White House, Cantor remained cordial and silent, as if he had been chastised for his behavior the day before.

“Cantor is smart and he really does understand the zeitgeist of his own caucus, but he’s far more interested in catering to that than he is to leading it,” Ornstein said.

“Eric is the sort of person who works from morning until night -- he’ll out-organize and out-maneuver anybody,” said University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, a political scientist who has known him since he was a young man. “That’s good if you are his ally and bad if he’s got his eye on you.”

Elaine Povich of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.

Read more about the debt negotiations from The Fiscal Times:
No Debt Ceiling Agreement Yet--Obama is on Call 
Mr. President: America Is Paying Attention to the Debt Ceiling 
McConnell Turns Debt Ceiling into a Political Football