CANTOR IN CAMBRIDGE…. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) tends to struggle in forums where he’s expected to discuss his ideology in any depth. In one of my favorite examples, the Virginia Republican attended The Economist‘s World in 2010 conference, and boasted 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.

But one of the funny things about Cantor is that he’s unaware of his lack of awareness. It’s what leads him to accept an invitation to speak at Harvard, as he did last night, where he discussed the GOP’s economic agenda. I didn’t hear the speech or the Q&A, but this account stood out for me.

Students pushed Cantor to restore cuts to federal funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and AmeriCorps programs like Teach for America, which were included in the austere spending bill the House Republican majority approved last week. The legislation has yet to be enacted.

Cantor wouldn’t budge.

“This is about tradeoffs. This is about that we don’t have the money. We just don’t,” he told a student who asked whether he would “save one million lives” by restoring $1.5 billion in cuts to global HIV/AIDS funding.

I suppose it’s accurate to say the budget choices are “about tradeoffs,” but for Cantor to argue we can’t afford $1.5 billion to save lives through HIV/AIDS prevention is just bizarre. Indeed, this and other programs like Teach for America that Cantor mentioned have the benefit of being both cheap and effective.

But Cantor is making “tradeoffs” — he’s comfortable with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, mainly benefiting people who don’t need them, but when it comes to spending a small fraction of that total on HIV/AIDS prevention or getting teachers for low-income communities, “We don’t have the money. We just don’t.”

Actually, we do. Cantor and his buddies just care more about breaks for millionaires and billionaires, and adding the cost to the deficit. If the Majority Leader wants to defend those priorities, fine, I’d love to hear it. But don’t tell folks the country can afford an $858 billion tax-cut deal, all of which was put on the national charge card, but we can’t afford $1.5 billion to save lives through disease prevention. It’s callous; it’s wrong; and it’s insulting to our intelligence.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.