Cantor is the opposite of a ‘wonk’

CANTOR IS THE OPPOSITE OF A ‘WONK’…. Politico ran a big piece today on House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his “hyperambitious” motivations. It’s filled with various tidbits of praise for the Virginian, including one House Republican who was serious when he said Cantor could be the “first Jewish Republican president.”

Perhaps most strikingly, the article states, simply as a matter of fact, that “Cantor is a serious wonk.”

Ezra Klein said he’s “always been a bit puzzled” by Cantor, and hasn’t “seen much evidence” of Cantor’s interest in policy.

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… But maybe I’m missing something on Cantor and my readers can enlighten me. Is he known for mastery of a particular issue?

Ezra, you’re not missing anything.

Eric Cantor has never demonstrated any working familiarity with any area of public policy — ever. On health care, he had no idea what he was talking about, but pretended he did. On national security policy, Cantor is “divorced from reality.”

In one of my favorite Cantor stories, the Minoroty Whip appeared at the Economist’s World in 2010 conference late last year, and insisted that his Republican Party had plenty of “big ideas,” especially on “jobs.” The moderator responded, “What is the big idea? ‘Jobs’ is not an idea.” Cantor replied, “The big idea is to get, to get, to produce an environment where we can have job creation again.”

He then changed the subject.

When I chat with various aides on the Hill, and I ask about GOP leaders, folks seem fairly impressed with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), but tend to laugh when Cantor’s name is brought up.

So, how did Eric Cantor get a reputation as some kind of GOP genius? Part of it has to do with grading on a curve — it’s easy to look like a “wonk” given the stature of the current House Republican conference. It doesn’t hurt that Cantor has an aggressive media/p.r. operation that helps build Cantor up, and papers over the fact that he doesn’t appear to know anything about public policy.

But arguably the biggest factor is that Cantor has a near-obsession with Republican strategizing — he’s launched multiple rebranding and campaign-oriented gimmicks — which in GOP circles, necessarily translates into an impressive intellect. After all, if the quest for electoral power matters more than substance anyway, the most laudatory “wonks” are the ones who spend the most time thinking about how to help Republicans win elections.