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The Underappreciated Eric Cantor

By

Eric Cantor must have woken up this morning feeling like the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: I get no respect.

In the aftermath of his stunning loss, Mr. Cantor has been attacked from all sides by political Monday-morning quarterbacks — for supposed arrogance, for ignoring his constituents, for being too moderate, too pro-business, not free-market enough, weak on the border issues, and so on.

There is probably an element of truth to each of these criticisms, but now that it is fashionable to treat Mr. Cantor as the piñata for everything that is wrong in Washington, I’d like to take a moment to do something no one else has done: Defend him.

First, for those friends on the right who say that Eric Cantor is a sellout or insufficiently conservative, his track record speaks for itself. When he became majority leader of the House, the budget deficit was $1.4 trillion, and potentially headed to $2 trillion as the Left called for more “stimulus.” It was the House Republicans who brought that spending and borrowing binge to a screeching halt. The deficit is now $400 billion, a $1 trillion improvement.

Federal spending has fallen over the three years Mr. Cantor has been the House leader. That’s the first time it’s dropped since the 1950s.

Here’s the point: No one on Capitol Hill is singularly more responsible for that remarkable improvement than Eric Cantor. Sure, we need far more spending cuts, but it was Mr. Cantor who was the lead negotiator for the Republicans and went face-to-face in those fierce negotiations with Barack Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. He also was a key leadership voice in repelling major tax hikes sought by Obama.

Those who doubt this history should read Bob Woodward’s book on the day-to-day fiscal negotiations. Mr. Cantor refused to budge even when some in his own party — including Speaker John Boehner — were willing to take tax hikes as part of a grand budget package.

To liberals, Mr. Cantor was the villain. To conservatives, in those dark months when the nation was about to drive off a debt cliff, Mr. Cantor shone. These are just facts.

The 2011 budget deal, with budget caps and spending cuts, was the great conservative victory of the last decade — with the most liberal president since Woodrow Wilson — and Mr. Cantor has never received the gratitude from conservatives he deserves. He could have sold out to the Left’s demands for a tax hike to seal the “grand bargain,” and lesser men would have buckled under to the pressure. Most would have relished the praise that was sure to come from the New York Times and CBS for being a “statesman.” (Who knows, he might have even won a Profiles in Courage award from Caroline Kennedy.)

I am admittedly biased, since Eric Cantor is a personal friend. We worked together on tax reform and other fiscal reforms. He is a Reaganite supply-sider on taxes and growth.

To those who say Eric Cantor is no conservative, I respectfully say: Nonsense.

Have people forgotten what “moderate” Republican leadership really looks like? Bob Dole. Jerry Lewis. Bob Michal. Alan Simpson. Eric Cantor is about as far away from that crew as LeBron James is from Spike Lee.

That is not to say Mr. Cantor didn’t make some major mistakes of late, which brought about his fall from grace. Instead of embracing long-overdue plans to abolish Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the instigators of the housing bubble — the House leadership defended these corrupt behemoths. House leadership also helped squash reforms of the Export-Import Bank and other crony-capitalism institutions that are fixtures in Washington. He and John Boehner should have fought harder against the big spenders in the GOP caucus to stop the weakening of the sequester last year. And Americans still haven’t forgiven Republicans, including Mr. Cantor, who voted for the massive Hank Paulson bank bailouts (TARP). One takeaway for the party: never again on bailouts.

Republicans should have also been more aggressive in articulating a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda as a counter to Obamanomics. It’s too late for Mr. Cantor, but not for the party to correct here.

I’m a term-limits fanatic, so there is value in incumbents’ losing. I just wish it hadn’t been this one. Too many members of Congress have come to believe they have some kind of lifetime entitlement to their seats. Well, that myth has been shattered. The mood on Capitol Hill this week is as somber as I’ve ever seen it. In both parties, they’re all running scared now — and that, too, is a good thing.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Cantor’s stunning defeat will not be his legacy. His legacy is being the man who stared down Barack Obama on the budget and never blinked. He was pivotal in bringing about the 2010 GOP takeover of the House, starting when no one thought it was possible. He helped steer Washington and the crazies in the Obama administration away from an imminent financial abyss in 2011.

If we had fallen into that pit, the wreckage might have made 2009 look like a picnic. For that, he deserves our heartfelt thanks.

- Stephen Moore is chief economist at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in the National Review Online

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