Cantor’s business experience gives him credibility in Congress, where he and fellow Republicans are betting that they can continue to call for tax cuts and not do themselves any political damage. Last fall, Cantor opposed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s proposal for the U.S. government to buy distressed bank assets, particularly mortgage-backed securities. It was controversial among Democrats and Republicans alike, attempting both to bolster the economy and to rescue companies that had made bad decisions. When the $700 billion rescue package first came to the floor, most Democrats voted for it, while most Republicans, including Cantor, voted against it.
Cantor blamed the bill’s defeat on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had called the economic policies of the Bush administration “reckless.” He stood before television cameras waving the text of Pelosi’s remarks. “Right here is the reason, I believe, why this vote failed,” he said, criticizing her partisan tone. But after the Dow plunged 777 points following the House defeat, Cantor and many other Republicans voted for a similar measure.
In the face of the deepening economic crisis, Cantor appears to be softening his criticism of big government. “There is a proper role for government that works and can actually do its job… I feel my challenge is to make sure we don’t go too far the other way, because America leads by the competitive spirit,” he says. The hint of flexibility once again reflects his reverence for Reagan. “The way that I saw Reagan demonstrate leadership was that he had his set of principles, and it wasn’t that he was so adherent to them that he couldn’t bend, or talk to anyone else. He was artful in applying those principles and in coming up with solutions to problems,” Cantor says.
Still, the primary responsibility of a whip is to keep party members in line. Thomas Bliley describes Cantor’s whip-style as “low key,” “very persuasive” and “not polemic.” “He doesn’t fly off the handle,” he says. One senior House Democrat, who requested anonymity, disagrees. “He is very conservative, very partisan, very ambitious, very hard-working,” the Democrat said.