Former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor argued that an excessive concern with short-term political goals sacrifices long-term success in Congress at an event hosted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service on Wednesday.
The conversation, titled “How Short-termism is Breaking Washington,” was moderated by GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94) and GU Politics fellow and senior politics editor at the Daily Beast, Jackie Kucinich.
According to Cantor, short-termism is a phenomenon in national politics in which members of both parties grow increasingly polarized and prioritize small political victories in the short term at the expense of long-term stability, cooperation and progress.
“Short-termism is the result of degradation and a lack of trust in our leaders and our political institutions,” Cantor said.
Cantor argued that in the 2016 election, short-termism is visible in the factions within the Republican Party that support Donald Trump and the progressive wing in the Democratic Party that back Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“If you think about short-termism and what is infecting so much of the public discourse today, there is this trend toward short-termism in both the corporate and business arena as well as in government and politics,” Cantor said. “Where they have something in common is this lack of trust or faith in institutions.”
Cantor cited the public outrage that resulted from the 2005 Parade Magazine cover story on the “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska — a project that sought to connect the small town of Ketchikan with its airport — as an example of how the public began to lose faith in the federal government and see Congress as a body full of inefficiency, wastefully spending taxpayer dollars.
“[They] are saying, ‘Why would I trust these people who say they have this long-term vision where they are taking us, if this is the result,’” he said. “A big reason Republicans lost the majority in 2006 is because of those types of decisions that were allowed to take place.”
He proceeded to explain that this phenomenon could have been prevented shortly after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
“The election of Barack Obama held so much potential and promise for this country. I was just elected into Republican leadership and became the minority whip when Barack Obama was sworn in,” Cantor said. “As Republicans, we were in the extreme minority. He had supermajorities in the Senate and overwhelming majorities in the House. It allowed him to do a lot of things.”
Cantor said that with the overwhelming presence of Democrats in the federal government, the House minority was the most powerless body.
“The powerless force was we in the House. We had such a small minority,” Cantor said.
Cantor recalled his first negotiations with Obama and the White House team.
“The president reached out to [former Speaker ]John Boehner and me and he said, ‘Hey, we want to work with you. Come on in to the White House, bring us your ideas’,” Cantor said. “That quickly dissipated after the inauguration. We were dispensed with because that month we got no feedback from the White House and they announced they were going forward with their stimulus bill … We felt we were given the cold shoulder.”
Cantor said following that meeting, Democrats forced a series of bills through Congress along partisan lines including the 2009 stimulus package, the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms. Cantor said he believes these types of legislation contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and increased distrust in the federal government.
“That evolved into the mandate we got in the elections of 2010 and put us in the majority. It wasn’t necessarily that they became confident in us,” Cantor said. “They said, ‘Hey, Republicans, get in there and be that check and balance on what we believe is the administration run amok with all this legislation and regulatory overreach.’”
Cantor said that until the Republicans gained control of the Senate, their primary role was as a balance to a largely Democratic government with the aim of preventing future Democratic policies. Then, due to a variety of factors, expectations began to shift.
“All of a sudden, you weren’t just there to block, you’re there to undue it,” Cantor said. “Well how in the world does one House repeal these legislations? It’s not going to happen. That became the new test. My side played into that and we started passing repeal bills, over and over again.”
Cantor said Republican voters expectations were difficult to meet, and contributed to more distrust as the House failed to make changes. According to Cantor, whenever movements formed to try to make compromises, voters confronted their legislators with anger.
Cantor said he himself was a victim of his constituents’ anger in Virginia when he lost the republican primary to a Tea Party candidate.
Cantor said Trump’s rise in the Republican Party is a concerning sign for the party.
“How do you go about being a party of inclusion? You stay away from the kind of statements being thrown around by some from my side,” Cantor said. “Trump is really worrisome. If he is the standard bearer of our party, what does that say? You don’t say that about Mexicans, you don’t say that about minorities, you don’t say that about women.”
Ellie Singer (COL ’18), who introduced the congressman, said she appreciated the opportunity to hear him speak.
“It’s such an honor. I love him to death and I have admired his work for quite some time,” Singer said. “As a Republican myself, it is difficult to watch our party going through so much infighting, so it is refreshing to introduce a speaker who is so focused on dialogue.”
Elleithee said in an interview with The Hoya that speaking with Cantor was especially important to him because of his own background in Virginia politics.
“It’s kind of surreal for me, because I came up through Virginia politics and he was majority leader when I was at the DNC. A lot of my career was spent attacking Eric Cantor. Now that we have stepped away from the political arena, we have different perspectives,” Elleithee said.
Elleithee said he hopes students left the event with a glimpse at the perspective of a national leader.
“To be able to hear from someone at the highest level of government and who fell victim to some of this distrust and short-termism, to hear from him and engage with him is important,” Elleithee said. “So much of what we do is to begin to see if we can impact the discussion now.”
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