Cantor’s Big Speech: Small, Greasy Nuggets of Policy

The latest of the many Big Speeches delivered by Republicans aimed at changing the party’s image without changing its ideology was delivered today by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of VA in the friendly confines of the American Enterprise Institute. So important was this speech, it seems, that Republicans accused the president of trying to “step on it” via remarks at roughly the same time on how the administration proposed to avoid the pending March 1 appropriations sequester.

Cantor’s Big Speech was officially advertised as a “rebranding” of the GOP into a nice, positive, friendly band of pols who just want to help middle-class Americans improve their daily lives. And according to National Review‘s Robert Costa, what would make the speech especially interesting was that it would focus on policies, not just rhetoric.

Well, you can read Cantor’s prepared remarks yourself. It certainly does avoid the usual harsh War For Civilization rhetoric usually employed by House Republicans of late. It issues no ultimatums and threatens no revolutions. But after three eye-glazing readings, my main question was: Is this all you got, Eric? Nestled in an endless series of soft-focus rhetorical gestures and “real people” shout-outs, the speech was the policy equivalent of a side order of chicken nuggets: small, greasy, and not very nourishing.

By my rough count, you had to plow through twenty-seven (27) paragraphs before coming to anything that resembled an actual policy proposal. That turned out to be a laboriously explained yet not terribly clear endorsement of the “back-pack” K-12 education voucher–e.g., use of federal funds for non-accountable (except by the parents getting the money) use in private schools. Also on the education front was a ringing endorsement of better information for students entering higher education institutions, and maybe a tilt in student loan programs to create an incentive to graduate.

Readers reeling from all this policy boldness could move on to the same endorsement of “reform” in fragmented job training programs that people in both parties have been calling for ever since Dan Quayle was bragging about the Job Training Partnership Act. There was plea for the ancient conservative chestnut of letting hourly employees convert overtime pay to some sort of comp-time, without any clarity on the question of whether and on what terms employers could require it.

But wait: Cantor also came out for reducing loopholes in the tax system! And at the same time he endorsed the child tax credit that’s been in the code since the 1990s.

On the health care front, Cantor made the usual negative assertions about Obamacare, without a hint of any alternative GOP proposal for dealing with the uninsured. He offered the dazzlingly original argument that the states should be given more flexibility in administering Medicaid. And he seemed to be arguing for a return to some sort of Medicare Advantage program encouraging seniors to buy private health insurance.

And oh yeah, bravely taking the bull by the horns, Cantor waded into the immigration controversy by generally endorsing more visas for the highly qualified, and a path to citizenship for children brought into the country without documents–which are, of course, the least contentious issue in the entire debate.

I may have missed a morsel or two scattered amongst the anecdotes and bromides. But there couldn’t have been much. If Republicans are actually proud of this essay in policy minimalism–delivered at a think tank, no less!–then they are further away from any real reinvention of themselves than even hostile observers like me thought possible.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.