As I wrote on Tuesday, it has become increasingly clear the goal of President Obama and the Democrats in the debt-ceiling crisis has been to force a seemingly catastrophic event like a default or a facsimile thereof, in order to paint their Republican antagonists as extremists who prize their ideology over the good of the nation. The model for this is the 1995 government shutdown in which President Clinton outmaneuvered the leaders of the Republican Congress. But the one thing they lacked that would allow them to duplicate that turn of events was someone to play the role of Newt Gingrich, the petulant foil who made Clinton’s victory possible.
But in the last couple of days, Democrats are acting as if they’ve found a stand-in for Gingrich: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid tore into Cantor in an ad hominem rant on the floor of the Senate that may set back even further the always-testy relationship between the two Houses of Congress. Reid said Cantor was too “childish” to be at the negotiating table at the White House with other leaders and blasted him for leaving previous talks about the debt-ceiling crisis with Vice President Biden. Another member of the Senate leadership, Chuck Schumer, issued a separate attack on Cantor.
The spark for this effort to demonize Cantor was a testy exchange between the Virginia congressman and President Obama. But while Cantor did nothing more than stand his ground with the president when they clashed over the question of tax increases, it was Obama who did the childish thing and walked out of the talks. This was odd behavior for the man who is posing as the sole adult in the room. But as one reader said in reaction to a previous post of mine in which I referred to Obama’s “wildly inconsistent” way of conducting the negotiations, such actions are entirely consistent with that of a labor negotiator who is intent on provoking a lockout or a strike. Obama’s goal here is not compromise but a debacle he can blame on the Republicans.
It’s going to take more than a few swipes from Reid or Schumer to fit Cantor for the Gingrich clown suit. Unlike the egotistical Gingrich, whose self-importance and hubris made him the perfect punching bag for the note-perfect Clinton, Cantor is a far more careful politician and not one who has identified himself with extremist members of his caucus. Rather than acting on his own hook as Gingrich seemed to do, Cantor’s role has been one of representing the views of the House majority and, indeed, arguably that of a public at least as wary of more debt and higher taxes as they are of the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling. While he is a tough, experienced political operator, the sober Cantor isn’t sufficiently flamboyant or enough of a wild-eyed radical to be passed off as another egomaniac intent on wrecking the government.
Cantor simply doesn’t give the Democrats enough material to be their all-purpose punching bag. That’s a problem, because without one, their 1995 reprise scenario won’t work.