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Is Eric Cantor a policy wonk?

I've always been a bit puzzled by Eric Cantor. The word on him, as this Politico story says, is that he's "a serious wonk," which makes him a counterpoint to John Boehner, "a backslapper who loves golf and socializes with his friends."

But I've never seen much evidence that Cantor is a serious wonk. His policy positions range from "whatever the rest of the caucus is supporting," which makes sense given that he's part of the House leadership, to sort of wacky ideas, like his bailout alternative in which the federal government would insure all mortgages. At the health-care summit, there were plenty of Republicans -- Paul Ryan, Lamar Alexander, and Tom Coburn, among them -- who made compelling presentations. Cantor, as you can see in the clip atop this post, was the guy who brought props.

What Cantor does seem to be is an excellent fundraiser and messager, and in the one point of tension that Politico actually does identify between Boehner and Cantor, it was Boehner who sided with policy and Cantor who went for fundraising and messaging.

At issue was the structure of "America Speaking Out," the group that was supposed to craft the Republican Party's renewal agenda. "Cantor wanted the program run out of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which would have allowed party leaders to capture names and then hit those people up for cash and campaign help." Boehner wanted it run out of the Hill, where he could use congressional policy staff to work on the ideas and then sell the proposal as a serious policy effort. Boehner won, it seems. But Cantor's position was not the one you'd expect from a serious policy wonk. When's the last time you've heard of the DCCC or the DNC coming up with a smart policy idea?

But maybe I'm missing something on Cantor and my readers can enlighten me. Is he known for mastery of a particular issue? Does he have some really smart policy initiatives that he's promoting in the House? What's the deal here?

By Ezra Klein  |  June 30, 2010; 1:57 PM ET
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I think this is largely correct. Still, for some reason I'm slightly more comfortable with a prospective Cantor speakership than with a prospective Boehner speakership. Perhaps it's because I've heard Boehner saying mainly stupid things and Cantor saying mainly cynical things?

Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.

Posted by: TheLev | June 30, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Stereotypes about Jewish guys with glasses?

Posted by: SimonCox | June 30, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Damn, SimonCox, you beat me to it.

Posted by: DDAWD | June 30, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Isn't Cantor the one that's out hitting the bars in DC by 4pm every day? Doesn't exactly scream "policy wonk" does it?

Posted by: lol-lol | June 30, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Duh, Ezra!

I hear Cantor goes out for Chinese food on Christmas, get it?

Posted by: stevie314 | June 30, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Google the name of Eric Cantor along with the phrase up-and-comer, and what you'll find is that virtually all of the usual suspects of talking heads in Washington have lauded Cantor as a politically shrewd up-and-comer of the GOP.

Cantor may be young and ambitious, but I have yet to see him offer anything of substance in form of policy. And his politics are so partisan and predictable, Cantor doesn't seem to have the capacity of working across the isle in getting things done.

Perhaps all the praise given to Cantor has more to do with geography than anything else. It's an odd coincidence that at one time or another the media has portrayed a Virginia politician (George Allen, Tim Kaine, Bob McDonnell and Cantor) as the up-and-comer and bright new star of their party.

Posted by: kaneblues | June 30, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I think the only thing that Cantor is a wonk on is himself.

Posted by: free-electron | June 30, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I seriously think the fact that he wears glasses explains 90% of this misconception. The other 10% probably comes from comparing him to the rest of his party.

Posted by: dreyno85 | June 30, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Eric Cantor doesn't strike me as being an alcoholic.

Posted by: Maezeppa | June 30, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Cantor is well liked within the R caucus. He ascended to where he is by being Boehner's guy, and that's the rep he has. He does a lot of PR stunts, and some people resent that.

Posted by: mschol17 | June 30, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Probably because Mike Pence makes Cantor look like a genius by comparison.

Also, I concur with the "Jewish guy with glasses" stereotype playing in his favor.

Posted by: Cyco | June 30, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Cantor formed a "policy group" which by "appearances" makes him a policy wonk. The policy group was all hat and no cattle which makes him a "faux wonk".

Republicans have an agenda that is pro Big Business and pro special interests. They want to use government for power and the treasury as their private slush fund to dispense favors. They support special interest groups that have a social agenda they wish to impose on the rest of us.

Nothing about Republican philosophy is dedicated to job creation or issues important to the majority of Americans. Instead they are in favor of cheap labor and entitlements for the elites.

Posted by: bakho | June 30, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Didn't Matt Yglesias make a similar point about Cantor a while ago? Or was that someone else? If I remember correctly, the only plausible explanation that could be found then is the only one that can be found now: What SimonCox said.

Posted by: slag | June 30, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

One Cantor highlight that I remember from about three years ago was him essentially stating that a President must follow the lead of his commanders in the field (e.g. suggesting that he didn't understand the chain of command, or civilian control of the military).

He strikes me as an affable dunce with a winning personality. He may be smarter than he leads on, but a policy wonk, he ain't.

Posted by: JPRS | June 30, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Eric Cantor is simply yet another brilliant conservative true to the commitment to the Founding Fathers vision of a limited government that prevents consolidation of power in DC and growth-inhibiting structural deficits.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | June 30, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama's arrogant elitism is on display in the clip more than anything else...if he could manage any effort at all to be fair he would have criticized Representative Slaughter's disgracefully ludicrous argument that we needed federal healthcare in order to allow an elderly lady to buy dentures!

Instead he criticized the most bipartisan Senator McCain for his criticism of Obama blatant campaign lie about promising his negotiations with special interests like SEIU deal on C-Span. He belittled McCain, while saying nothing about Slaughter.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | June 30, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

Cantor is a slimey self promoter, nothing more. He reeks of insincerity. I ahve yet to encounter anyone, left or right, who thinks of Eric Cantor as knowledgeable. I am shocked to see anyone call this guy a wonk. He gives us Jewish guys with glasses a bad name.

Posted by: zattarra | July 1, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

The major point overlooked in your comments about "America Speaking Out" is that Boehner arranged to have it run out of the Hill instead of the RNC so that the taxpayers could be stuck with the bill instead of the RNC paying for its own political research.

Posted by: smbrinich | July 1, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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