House Majority Leader Eric Cantor set out to "humanize" his image by doing a 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl that aired on New Year's Day. This is how Stahl explains the context of the interview: "President Obama has made Eric Cantor the face of Republican inflexibility."
Although it did not go entirely as planned, it's clear what Cantor and his press team wanted: Cantor presented as a nice guy, a family man, a reasonable politician who is trying to do what he thinks is best for his country.
The interview contains the usual elements of a Washington PR makeover: Cantor the "cool" dad who listens to rap, Cantor the devoted husband, Cantor the cyclist, Cantor as a boy who wanted to fit in at school, Cantor the statesman who stands for his principles, Cantor the straight-shooting populist who rails against those who game the system and include "provisions in the tax code that favor their industry," etc.
But, something goes awry: the Ghost of Ronald Reagan makes an appearance and, like x-ray vision, reveals the cracks in Cantor's story.
STAHL: What’s the difference between compromise and cooperate?
CANTOR: Well, I would say cooperate is let’s look to where we can move things forward where we agree. Comprising principles, you don’t want to ask anybody to do that. That’s who they are as their core being.
STAHL: But you know, your idol, as I’ve read anyway, was Ronald Reagan. And he compromised.
CANTOR: He never compromised his principles.
STAHL: Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.
CANTOR: Well, he– he also cut taxes.
STAHL: But he did compromise–
CANTOR: Well I –
OFF-SCREEN ANGRY VOICE: That just isn’t true! And I don’t want to let that stand!
The voice that breaks the fourth wall belongs to Cantor's press secretary, Brad Dayspring. After the interruption, 60 Minutes immediately cuts to Reagan in 1982 announcing a tax raise and the need for compromise. To millions of viewers, it felt like Reagan had cooperated with CBS News to give Cantor and the House Republicans a good bonk on the head.
Despite the best laid plans of the Cantor media team, the Ghost of Reagan stole the show and revealed the chasm that separates Reagan from Cantor, and the ideological conservatives of today from the principled conservatives of yesteryear. The biggest difference between Reagan and Cantor is that Reagan, in his approach to tax policy and the economy, had the strength of character to do what was right for the country, even if powerful special interests disagreed. Where is that strength of character now?
Reagan said of his '82 tax increase, "I support it because it is right for America. I support it because it is fair."
Fairness. What's right for America. Those are the kind of principles that ought not to be compromised. A pledge to powerful bankers and corporate lobbyists is not a principle; it's a backroom deal.
Our country needs more revenue to heal an economy in cardiac arrest. We can address the deficit as the economy heals from emergency surgery and is up and walking again. We need to put job creation and economic growth before backroom pledges and ideological rigidity. That's what Reagan would do if he were president today, and that is what Cantor should do if he really, truly wants an image makeover.