Here’s a holiday recipe: take one Republican obstructionist, add a major TV network, some voiceovers, a dash of hypocrisy, marinate in amnesia, and what do you have? Eric Cantor’s end-of-the-year image makeover.
Following a series of protests at his public appearances and in a bid to retain his status as the number two ranking House Republican and rewrite his reputation as a partisan ideologue, Eric Cantor brought CBS News’ 60 Minutes into his home over Thanksgiving to show a softer side of the House Majority Leader.
Cantor’s image problems are not limited to political gaffe’s – like his infamous statement saying his home state would not receive disaster funding without first offsetting the budget costs. The Republican from Virginia has become the leading image of GOP obstructionism and Wall Street patronage – he has bent the limits of campaign finance rules to increase his ability to take corporate money, obstructed meaningful legislation every step of the way and even alienated the Republican base by catering to anti-regulation Tea Party positions.
To pull off the image makeover, Cantor’s team is pulling out the big guns. Along with the 60 Minutes special, they are releasing a series of short videos, “Snapshot of the Leader,” documenting particularly productive hours in Cantor’s day.
For a series of Youtube videos and a holiday television special to reverse Cantor’s negative image is unlikely. The media responses to Cantor’s planned makeover have ranged from incredulous to bemused. Underlying these reactions is the realization that while Cantor plans to change his image, he has no plans to change the political behavior that created the image problem in the first place.
Strange brew: Eric and the Tea Party Rise
Eric Cantor began his career in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served from 1992 to January 2001, and took on standard Republican positions in his first years in Congress. He voted against raising the minimum wage in 2007, was strongly pro-Israel and was opposed to gun control, but he has moved increasingly to the right as the Tea Party movement took ground.
The key markers of his evolution have been protecting tax breaks for corporations, taking a stance against the existence of global warming and pushing the government near to default on its debt last spring. He has also monetarily supported the spread of Tea Party ideas – of the group of 100 freshmen Republican representatives that came into the House in 2010, Cantor’s Every Republican is Crucial (ERIC) political action committee has contributed to 32 representatives that did not believe in global warming. GOP freshman against birthright citizenship, tax increases and in favor of reducing legal immigration were also well-represented among legislators that received money from ERIC.
Cantor is also known for his knee-jerk reaction against any legislation coming from the other side of the aisle, but he came under especially harsh criticism during his attempts to shut down debt ceiling negotiations, which critics say he did only out of principle. Along with his comments on hurricane disaster relief, Cantor has said Democrats are “overreacting” to the financial crisis and consistently refused taxes on the rich while calling for students to immediately start paying interest and attacked social security.
With the name he made for himself as a champion of the far-right has come increasing scrutiny from other quarters. Several of his public speaking events have seen protests and he most recently cancelled a speaking visit to the University of Pennsylvania, due to a planned demonstration by progressive groups including Occupy Philadelphia, the local AFL-CIO and AFSCME.
When asked about his political blunders, Cantor played it off as a rare case of Beltway honesty: “When I’m asked a question, I guess I respond… Maybe that’s different than most around here. Because I guess I assume that everybody’s really inquiring for the benefit of an answer, and instead, what happens a lot in the course of public debate, writing articles and reporting, that sometimes gets lost.”
Close-Up of A Leader
Despite his penchant for scrupulousness, Cantor’s “Snapshot of the Leader” video series doesn’t allow for any unscripted comments about disaster aid or overpaid public programs. The narration never goes beyond vague statements like Cantor’s wish “to promote achievement and success for everyone” as a camera follows the congressman through an hour of his day, taking black-and-white still photos of him walking through hallways, driving to state buildings and shaking hands with unidentified men in suits.
The videos don’t show any proposals, such as Cantor’s suggestion to cut $53 billion from Medicare and Medicaid by taking money from states, doctors and healthcare providers to shore up the budget deficit. He took it a step further with Social Security, saying in March that the program “cannot exist” in the America that “we” want.
Meanwhile, his own public payroll expenses have gone up 81 percent since 2001, according to an analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Politifact shows that federal workers make significantly less than Cantor’s staff – on average, federal employees are paid $67,691 annually, while Cantor’s highest paid staffer, his chief of staff, received a salary of $41,693.49 in the three months between April 2011 and June 20ll.
His attempt to sell his bipartisan credentials also falls far short of reality. In the October 9am to 10am snapshot, Cantor muses that legislative success “has to do with all coming together and trying to promote achievement and success for everyone,” and that “it’s better for all of us to pool together and try to root for America as one,” but he has blocked almost every major bill put forward by the Obama administration, including the debt ceiling legislation, the jobs bill and healthcare reform.
Lipstick on a Wall Street Bull
Eric Cantor “is a results-oriented leader in Congress who is committed to helping solve problems,” says the House Majority Leader’s official website. For his Wall Street connections, this includes voting on friendly bills shortly after received a donation. Cantor has voted in line with commercial banks and banking institutions 77 out of 112 times since 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As the largest recipient in Congress of Wall Street cash, Cantor has takes money from big business donors including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Occidental Petroleum and Genworth Financial, all in the top 20 contributors to his campaign committee and leadership PAC. At the same time, he has supported legislation that would protect tax loopholes for hedge fund managers on their investment gains and voted against the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which regulated Wall Street.
But that’s not what Eric Cantor and his press team want you to know. What they want you to know is that Cantor is committed to helping solve problems not for big business, but “for America’s families.”
Families like Cantor’s. His wife, Diana, mother to his three children, will likely be a central presence during the 60 Minutes special. But the fact that she is a partner with what a Roll Call investigation called “a secretive New York firm dealing in private equity and hedge funds known as Alternative Investment Management,” and was previously vice president at Goldman Sachs and managing director of New York Private Bank & Trust, may go unsaid.
Campaign Finance? Taken to the Limits — and Then Some.
Despite his constant anger at government transience, Cantor has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the recent federal changes in campaign finance – the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The Speaker has played the game of campaign finance to the allowable limit through a complicated and ever-changing layer of donation-collecting and expenditure-making bodies around his campaign. These include the (ERIC PAC), a victory fund, a congressional re-election committee and a “quasi-party operation” known as the Young Guns.
The ambiguity of coordination rules between candidates and super PACs as well as the liberal use of non-profits to collect unlimited donations without revealing their donors has allowed Cantor to bring in significant amounts of corporate funding without public censure. A drink with Cantor at a monthly coffee session can run a donor up to $2,500 and it is legal for Cantor to meet openly with donors as long as he doesn’t ask them explicitly got money.
In ERIC’s most recent Federal Election Commission filing, 7 CEOs and 37 company presidents donated as individuals to his PAC, and 85 individuals paid the maximum donation of $5,000. In the same period, Cantor called Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrating against the influence of corporate actors in politics a “mob.”
The windfall for Cantor has been nearly $2 million for ERIC PAC; his campaign has collected nearly $350,00 and the Cantor Victory Fund has received $2.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Though some say his obstructionism has cost him votes, as the Wall Street candidate with a Tea Party veneer, Cantor has kept himself in the good graces of his party by bringing campaign donations their way. The opaque Cantor Victory Fund 2012, an organization known as a joint fundraising committee created to pool resources for candidates, received over $50,000 from the finance industry this year, and has $2.4 million in the bank for a rainy day.
In October, a former aide of Cantor’s announced his plans to start a super PAC and two nonprofits, which can take unlimited donations without disclosure, to spread the Young Guns message of right-wing conservative upstarts.
Cantor’s attempted magic trick, taking millions from Wall Street donors and threating a government shutdown while also attempting to appeal to paint himself as a moderate and rational legislator, could yet vanish in smoke.