Majority Leader of the House of Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) delivered a much-ballyhooed speech this week at the American Enterprise Institute, entitled “Make Life Work for More People.” It was billed as the new agenda for the House Republicans, part of a post-2012- election rebuilding of the GOP, for the new 113th Congress. There is a (50-minute) C-SPAN edition, which may be a bit less soporific than the print version. But I can save you the effort of perusing either of the two, for the bottom line here is that there is nothing at all new in Cantor’s speech.
This was a pure public relations undertaking, and not a particularly inspired one at that. Which is not to say that it is nothing for a member of the GOP Congressional leadership to not simply (euphemistically speaking) spit when they mention President Obama’s name, or to refrain from denigrating most Americans as “takers,” while viewing their base as the “makers,” and it certainly is encouraging to hear the Republican House leaders say that they do not plan to outdo what they did when they controlled the last House of Representatives, which ranks as history’s absolute worst ever.
Cantor’s speech was certainly not a return to George W. Bush’s fictional “compassionate conservatism,” nor is it really a significant change of policy, point of view, or philosophy by Republicans. Rather, it is an effort at rebranding.
Cantor Outlines the GOP’s House Agenda
While it was not the topic of his talk, Cantor made clear from his opening words that the GOP House Leadership remains committed to the “moral imperative” of reducing the federal debt, which, of course, is all they have talked about for the last few years, inventing their self-inflicted (and hurtful to everyone) “cliffs” and “deadlines.” Still, the thrust of Cantor’s talk addressed five areas that are only indirectly related to each other, and addressed them all in vague terms. Those areas are education, healthcare, workforce reforms, immigration, and innovation.
Briefly: On education, Cantor wants Republicans to adopt the approach known as “weighted-student averaging,” which Ezra Klein at The Washington Post reports has been adopted by a number of Democrats at the state level.
With healthcare, Republicans want to repeal the taxes in Obamacare (not repeal Obamacare itself at least at this time, as earlier proposals had threatened to do), and create a unified deductible for Medicare. Cantor’s proposals are healthcare tweaks, including cutting government grants for the social sciences in order, instead, to help “find cures to diseases.” (Social science has been hard on conservatives and Republicans so it’s no wonder they favor related cuts.)
Workforce reforms are little more than measures preventing workers from getting screwed over by employers when it comes to overtime, maternity leave, and vacation, and other such adjustments. Congress should have fixed all of these problems long ago.
As for immigration, Cantor says that the GOP House leaders are with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), without spelling out that the legislation Rubio favors is a modified, watered-down version of the DREAM Act, with, of course, a virtual Berlin Wall having to be built along all United States borders before anything can be done.
Cantor opened his remarks by asserting that the House Republicans will “pursue an agenda based on a shared vision.” But it was never clear, in his talk, who was sharing what, or why, or how.
A good summary of, and reaction to, Cantor’s proposals was prepared by Ezra Klein and Howard Kurtz, who offered only polite yawns. What caught my attention with respect to these modest proposals, which will do little to make any American’s “life work” are all the caveats and qualifiers that surround them. The speech was long on rhetoric but short on specifics, and even shorter on an attempt at tethering everything to basic conservative principles.
Cantor’s Qualifiers And Conditions Rely On the Tenets Of Contemporary Conservatism
In the second paragraph of his speech, Cantor said, “the House majority will pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families. And to restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits.”
Note that last qualifying sentence: This is going to be done by keeping Washington out of the “health, happiness and prosperity” of Americans.
Then, before turning to his vague proposals, Cantor says that whatever those specific actions might be, they will “be based on the conservative principles of self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government.”
Allow me to decode these buzzwords for you.
Modern conservatism has three underlying approaches that were epitomized by the three thinkers who launched the modern conservative movement: Senator Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Robert Welch, Jr.
Goldwater, the GOP’s 1964 standardbearer, believed that “proven values of the past” should be drawn upon in order to find solutions to today’s problems, or, as Goldwater also stated, conservatism can solve economic, social and political problems by drawing on the “successes of the past.” Today, Goldwater’s brand of conservatism has been abandoned for a blend of the Buckley/Welch approach (despite the fact that Buckley openly rejected the Welch school of thought).
The always articulate Buckley avoided defining his conservatism, and yet his approach was quite clear when he stated, upon launching The National Review, that he wanted to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or have much patience with those who so urge it.” Buckley would probably applaud the do-nothing, obstructionist 112th Congress led by the intransigent House Republicans.
Welch was the wealthy businessman who founded the John Birch Society, which purportedly draws on Christian principles to embrace limited government and oppose all forms of wealth redistribution in general, and anything perceived as collectivist, socialistic, communistic or totalitarian in particular. Although the Religious Right’s conservatism rejected the ugly John Birch label, the thinking of religious right activists and that of the Birchers are virtually indistinguishable from each other. And the values of both embrace radical means to achieve their uncompromising ends.
Today, House conservatives think like the Buckley/Welch/Religious Right conservatives, and reject any form of pragmatic and real-world-based conservatism. And this appears to be the conservatism that Cantor wants to guide the programs he outlined.
“Where’s The Beef?”
After watching a portion of Cantor’s talk on C-Span, and then carefully reading it, I understood what he is trying to do, but realized, to, that he has failed to accomplish his goal. Rebranding changes outside appearances, which will appeal to some, but the underlying product remains the same. So it is with Cantor’s GOP.
While Cantor does not explain the conservative principles he embraces, his speech is clearly the same old contemporary conservativism, only slightly repackaged. His catchphrases: “Restrain Washington,” “self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government”—derive directly from the Buckley/Welch playbook, as modified by the Religious Right, and the current vogue of conservatism. (One reason that Barry Goldwater, as a practicing politician, rejected most of this thinking was that he found it ill-suited for governing. Similarly, the longer Ronald Reagan was actually in government, the further he moved from the Buckley/Welch/Religious Right approach, to instead employ the reality of Goldwater’s type of conservatism.)
If history is any indicator, and surely it is here, the conservatism that Cantor and his conservative colleagues in the GOP House embrace, will not make life work for more people. It never has done so in the past, although contemporary conservatism does seems to work and give comfort to those who have already made it. (These, of course, are the self-styled “makers,” rather than the supposed “takers.”) Indeed, until contemporary conservatism rejects the selfish radicalism that now dominates the movement, it will accomplish little and solve nothing.
When reading Cantor’s speech, I was reminded of the wonderful (now classic) Wendy’s commercial, where three little old ladies examine an enticing-looking hamburger bun, remove the top of the bun, discover there is no beef, and one of the ladies keeps asking: “Where’s the beef?” That is what I kept asking with Cantor’s speech, but in the end, I found it all bun, and no beef. All rhetoric, and no real change.