The Eric Cantor Rorschach Test

It’s hardly unusual for different people to hear the same speech and have entirely different reactions. But gotta say, Eric Cantor’s Great Big Speech earlier this week at the American Enterprise Institute is turning out to be a real Rorschach Test that reflects how people thought about the Republican Party Cantor was trying to “rebrand.”

As someone who’s had to listen to people from across the ideological spectrum make policy arguments over many years, I was shocked at Cantor’s lack of originality as he scraped the bottom of the think tank barrel to come up with something–anything–positive to say on education, health care and jobs (some subjects, of course, like the environment, were just beyond his imagination altogether, and/or of zero interest to his audience).

But to E.J. Dionne, a very wise man, Cantor’s speech represented the potential turning point for the GOP that the Virginian had telegraphed before delivering it:

A lot of the rebranding efforts are superficial yet nonetheless reflect an awareness that the party has been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues and limiting the range of voters it’s been addressing.

This is why Cantor’s speech was more important than the policies he outlined, which were primarily conservative retreads. His intervention proved that Obama and progressives are changing the terms of the debate, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.

Cantor wasn’t making the case for smaller government or tax cuts for the “job creators.” He was asking what government could do for the middle class — “to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who just want their life to work again.”

No wonder Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most subtle strategists, jumped at the chance to praise Cantor for taking “the first step towards finding common ground in agreeing on the problem you are trying to solve.” If the debate is about who will be nicer to business or who will cut taxes, Republicans win. What Schumer understands is that if the issue is providing relief for the middle class (and for workers, immigrants and low-income children), Republicans are competing over questions on which progressives have the advantage.

Well, maybe, if Cantor is actually trashing a generation of conservative politics and doing the best he can to come up with a “positive” agenda, then maybe his efforts are praiseworthy like a toddler’s first few clumsy steps.

But Michael Barone, speaking from inside the conservative movement, had a different take:

Cantor titled his remarks “Making Life Work,” and they were clearly aimed at Main Street.

He spoke not of educational block grants, but of having federal education “follow children” to schools their parents choose.

In a move reminiscent of presidents’ State of the Union messages since 1982, he brought along Joseph Kelley, who sent his son, Rashawn, and his three daughters to private schools with money from a District of Columbia voucher program the Obama administration has tried to shut down.

He criticized the Obamacare tax on medical devices by bringing a Baltimore nurse who worked to develop replacement discs for patients with back pain and then needed one herself. She was wearing her cervical collar.

He brought 12-year-old Katie, from Richmond, who has been treated for cancer almost all her life, to illustrate Republican support for funding basic medical research.

Addressing immigration, he brought Fiona Zhou, a systems engineering graduate student whose chances to remain in the United States would improve if, as the House voted last year, more immigration slots were opened for foreigners with advance science, technology and engineering degrees.

He endorsed the Dream Act, legal residence and citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. He praised the bipartisan work on a bill including border security, employment verification and guest-worker programs.

All this was a contrast with Cantor’s usual penchant to speak in Washington talk and with the tendency of many Republicans, notably Mitt Romney, to speak in abstractions like free enterprise and government regulation, rather than in words that describe the experiences of ordinary Americans.

Here’s the part where I nearly fell out of my chair laughing:

Yes, there’s a certain amount of theater and contrivance to this. But that’s often true in politics. There was sophisticated argumentation in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the two candidates also put on a show.

Boil off Barone’s hype, and what he’s really saying is that Canton’s speech shows what you get if conservative policy prescriptions aren’t advanced as just tactical window-dressing for a savage message of reaction aimed at true believers who understand the real goal is a return to a very different era of American life, but are instead offered as “solutions” to “Main Street” problems.

This is hardly novel, and would have seemed entirely normal just a few years ago. It’s a sign of how far the GOP has drifted from reality that the idea of selling its policies as actually intended to solve problems is greeted as some sort of Copernican Revolution.

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.