Interview: Eric Cantor

Eric Cantor – former House Majority Leader – made his political debut back in 2001 when he was returned as a Republican representative for the Seventh District of the State of Virginia in the US House of Representatives. Widely tipped to succeed John Boehner as 62nd Speaker of the House, these hopes were dashed in early June of last year. At the time of his resignation, following an electoral defeat to Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat, Cantor was the only Jewish and indeed non-Christian Republican seated in either house. Making headlines across the country, the felling of such a high-profile Republican sent shockwaves throughout the American political establishment. According to the New York Times, this event has gone down as “one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history.” Retiring from political life, Cantor now heads up a position as Vice Chairman of investment bank Moelis & Company. I caught up with him after his address at the Oxford Union.

A trend is emerging in the Grand Old Party, a nickname for the Republicans, at the moment. That is, a lot of people are tired of what they perceive to be ‘career politicians’. Even Rand Paul, for instance, whose mantra has always been one of being ‘an outsider’ – “I am a different kind of Republican” – has been tarred with that brush. Responding to these concerns, Cantor affirms that “it’s obvious that if you’ve spent a lot of time in Washington, you have to answer up to that. You have a record to defend.” Issues arise when “promises are being made to the public that there are simply no good reasons for, and of course, the follow-up just isn’t there.”

Political debutants have the upper hand: they offer new alternatives. “Mr Trump, for example, who claims to be an outsider and not a politician, is making the wildest promises and commitments that will never be fulfilled. Building a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and then asking the government of Mexico to pay for it? That’s ridiculous. But again, it’s all feeding into the cynicism and that will ultimately anger the electorate.” Cantor sees “starting to actually try and explain to people what is doable and what is not” as being crucial to improving upon Congress’s 14 per cent approval ratings.

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Fifteen candidates are now vying to become the Republican nominee, after the early exits of Scott Walker and Rick Perry, respectively. In what have been described as a series of open “brawls” by the Washington Post, and three-hour-long “speed-dating sessions” by the National Review, Cantor acknowledges that the GOP debates have been “providing a lot of entertainment for some people out there.” Joking aside, Cantor remains “confident that in the end it’ll all work out.”

Rather than hampering the selection process, the former congressman lauds the wide primary field as being indicative of the disillusionment felt with the status quo. “Given where the country is right now, with the anger out there toward Washington, toward Obama, it’s caused the Republican Party to have a lot of people who are interested in wanting to lead the country.”

Declaring his unflinching support for the son and brother of the two most recent Republican Presidents, Jeb Bush, Cantor is adamant that the former Governor of Florida “is going to be the next Republican nominee.” He has also reiterated his commitment to the GOP by trusting in the “Republican primary’s judgment.”

Speaking out on the House Freedom Caucus, Cantor denounces the “small but very vocal minority of members who take a very extreme view of the tactics they believe leadership should employ in trying to counter Obama.” He feels that this approach is fundamentally misguided. “[These] members are practising some of the misrepresentations that I discussed earlier. In other words, when people are just not being truthful in what they’re saying something needs to be done. There is very, very little likelihood – or it’s impossible, honestly – to beat the President into submission according to your own views. It’s just asking someone to abandon his or her principles. In spite of all this, Cantor is “hopeful that somehow the situation will correct itself.”

Offering his opinion on what is steadily becoming one of the hottest topics of the election campaign, Cantor has repeatedly stated that “Iran cannot be trusted. If I were the President I would never have signed the deal, I would never have entered into the deal.”

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Having said that, Cantor realises that it is time for a change of tack. “We are where we are right now. Let’s just assume the efficacy of the monitoring system and the dispute resolution system – which I don’t, but let’s just put that aside. Very troubling aspect of this are all the resources and money that we’re pouring into Iran and that money will enure to the benefit a very small portion of the population, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And they’re the bad guys.

“There are tens of billions of dollars that will flow into the country because sanctions have now been lifted. These measures will just allow Iran to add to its ability to destabilize the region. Iran is a terrorist regime and we’ve handed it these capacities – it’s very, very upsetting.”

Nevertheless, if a Republican President is to revise this agreement, it must be done in conjunction with the international community. Yet, with only 13 per cent of Germans and a meagre six per cent of Britons seeing Iran as an enemy, any renegotiation is looking less and less likely. Cantor counters this by stressing that “the most telling opposition are those that are most proximate to the threat, and you ask our Sunni allies, and Arab allies, you ask Israel, ask Egypt, ask Saudi Arabia, ask the United Arab Emirates – ask them what they think about this agreement and trusting the Iranians. They are solidly where the majority of the US Congress is. The President is where Europe is. And, I think the only hope that we can get anything good at this point is a new President with a new compliance and verification system to go in and to really build consensus among our allies that something needs to be done.”

In the words of Chris Wallace, “this race is a marathon, not a sprint.” The answers to these questions, and who will provide them, will become more apparent as the year wears on. As things stand, Mr. Cantor is hedging his bets with the ‘Jeb!’ campaign. Only time will tell if this is a wise choice.