Rethinking the GOP: Cantor: It's All About Jobs

Respect can be hard to earn in the halls of Congress, but Eric Cantor has built up a lot of it. The four-term Republican congressman was unanimously elected minority whip by his colleagues in the House in November, and that was after being mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain's presidential bid. At 46, Cantor is one of the younger Republicans in Congress, but has emerged as a vocal yet earnest critic of the Obama administration. Party elders like Newt Gingrich see a bright future in Cantor's leadership. NEWSWEEK's Katie Connolly asked Cantor what kind of future he sees for the GOP. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What are the ideas and philosophies that you think will appeal to voters over the next couple of years?
CANTOR: I think clearly, number one, the idea that people are looking for is a way to get this economy back on track. It is all about jobs, all about jobs, right now. The urgency of the economic situation is accentuated by the plunge in the Dow. It is all around in every neighborhood and community across this country. Everyone knows somebody who has lost a job. Most people know somebody who is having difficulties keeping up with their mortgages and their bills. So there are economic policies that make sense that help drive job sustainment and job creation. That is really the priority of the day.

What more specific policy ideas or solutions are you excited about right now?
On the job front the focus needs to be on job creators, and job creators are small businesses and entrepreneurs in this country. Seventy percent of the jobs come from small businesses, so we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to put incentives in place for people to get their small businesses back on track. You've got small-business owners right now who are not taking paychecks home. They are struggling to keep the lights on, much less sustain the jobs they've got. That is the critical, critical priority of the day. So the idea behind what the House Republicans have been promoting is that we need to focus on small business.

One of the criticisms of Gov. Bobby Jindal's response to President Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress was that limited-government models aren't resonating with voters right now. What is your response?
Well, I'm talking about a government that works. I think that right now people are not interested in whether it is limited government, not limited government, conservative or liberal, whether it is Republican or Democrat. People have come to the end of their rope and their patience has worn thin. Right now the markets and the investing public and the small businesses are at a state of panic because this White House and the congressional Democrats seem to want to do too much without dealing with the current problem. We believe as Republicans that the policies that will produce results, that will produce job growth and produce and build prosperity, are those principles premised on free markets, premised on entrepreneurs once again being willing to put capital at risk and come off the sidelines.

Traditionally Republicans have looked to places like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute as incubators of ideas. Where are places that conservative ideas are germinating right now?
Clearly those institutions play a role in the policy discussion, but I think we are also looking forward to a nationwide discussion. We have the ability to reach out online and have virtual town-hall meetings, whether it is over a tele–town hall on the phone or whether you are doing it on the Internet. We've got to get forward-thinking, outside of the Beltway box, if you will, and understand what people are facing. Prescriptions coming out of Washington aren't necessarily the right thing for this economy.

The New York Times recently profiled Newt Gingrich, who is someone you have a relationship with, and pointed to him as an idea factory. Who are the people that you turn to for ideas?
There are any number of people. I don't know if I can point. Certainly Newt is tremendous in terms of his ideas. He's got a lot of them. There are people, you know, small-business people, medium-sized, big-business people, there are families out there, and I think the best thing we can do right now is look through the prism of the people who are struggling and who are in a panic. If you just think about the single mom working in a suburban office park in Richmond, Va., which is what I represent, and think about what she is concerned with. She is concerned about losing her job right now. She is also concerned about her health care because it is connected to her job. What are the kinds of things that we need to do to address her problems? We are talking to people like Mitt Romney and like Meg Whitman, people who have real experience in making payroll and paying taxes and paying benefits and being held accountable by shareholders. Again, this is a very results-oriented effort that we must undergo in order to turn this economy around.

Are there any of your peers whom you see as leaders or as the new generation of Republicans?
You look at people—Kevin McCarthy, who I work closely with, he's the deputy whip; Paul Ryan, the ranking member on the budget committee; Dave Camp, the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee; somebody like Marsha Blackburn; Lynn Jenkins, who just came— Marsha's in from Tennessee on the Energy and Commerce Committee; Lynn Jenkins, a CPA just elected in Kansas. Cathy Rodgers, from the state of Washington, who is a small-business orchard owner who definitely gets the challenges of being a parent and a small-business owner. These are the type of people who are thinking, who are forward-looking and I think will really be the leaders of the future.

In this environment with a popular president who dominates the news, how do you get your message out?
Well, listen, I think his budget proposals and his stimulus bill have certainly created quite a stir, and if you look deeply under some of the polls that have been taken, there is a question about the confidence in what is going on, and clearly if you look at what is going on with the Dow, it is real. That is not any indicator other than people's life savings are evaporating, and so there is a question about the confidence and direction this administration is heading, and certainly the policies that congressional Democrats are pursuing. The country understands the need for divided government. It understands the need for the party out of power to demonstrate its ability to lead and come up with coherent counterproposals if that party doesn't agree with the sitting president, and that is what we intend to do. We intend to continue to engage people around the country, not just in Washington but outside the Beltway.