The Misadventures of Eric Cantor and Hurricane Irene

Last week, as Mean Irene, the tropical storm, tore up the East Coast, Congressman Eric Cantor made a rare show of political integrity.

With the nation watching the storm carve devastation from Puerto Rico to Vermont – including blowing through his home state of Virginia – the Republican majority leader held fast to an ideological principle – the Tea Party inspired call for immediate, sharp cuts in federal spending.

Cantor said any need to increase federal assistance for hurricane relief should be offset by equal spending cuts in the budget. In an interview on Fox News just before the storm hit, Cantor said this when asked about federal funding to help those in need of help from FEMA and other federal agencies: “We’re just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to do so.” His spokeswoman later doubled down on that statement telling Talking Points Memo: “Eric has consistently said that additional finds for federal disaster relief ought to be offset with spending cuts."

But cutting federal spending at the expense of victims of a natural disaster is a hard political sell. It is a big target for charges of insensitivity and failure to understand the essential role the national government performs in times of disaster for all its citizens.

And that is where one man’s show of integrity became another man’s illustration of a major political stumble.
First, even as he spoke in the name of principle Cantor opened himself to charges that he is guilty of a double standard.

The Hill newspaper reported this week that after Tropical Storm Gaston battered his Richmond, Virginia district in 2004, Cantor fought to secure millions of dollars in federal aid to clear the wreckage and repair infrastructure. The funding was not offset by any spending cuts. And Cantor applauded their arrival and even bragged about his efforts to get the money for his district in a press release. “The magnitude of the damage suffered by the Richmond area is beyond what the Commonwealth can handle,” he said “and that is why I asked the president to make federal funds available for the citizens affected by Gaston.”

And apart from charges of double-standards, Cantor’s hard-line austerity put him at odds with fellow Republican leaders, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. “I don’t want to hear about the fact that offsetting budget cuts have to come first before New Jersey citizens are taken care of,” said Gov. Christie. Virginia’s conservative Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has also broken with Cantor and requested $39 Million in federal disaster relief for his state.

Even John Boehner, Cantor’s partner in the House leadership, issued a statement that is hard not to interpret as a rebuke of Cantor: “When disasters and emergencies happen, Americans expect their government to respond appropriately and treat them as national priorities.” He softened the blow by suggesting that Democrats should not “exploit” the disaster for “partisan gain.”

But fellow Republicans are the ones who are distancing themselves from Cantor. The candidates for the Republican primary nomination offered no support for Cantor’s brand of tough love for hurricane victims.
And the New York Times reported that Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Tea Party freshman from New York, issued a statement to reassure her constituents that contrary to her fellow Tea Party leader – Cantor – “she did not support the effort to make disaster aid contingent on spending cuts.”

And, all of that came on top of the predictable criticism from Cantor’s political opponents.

On her Facebook page Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), lambasted Cantor: “It's outrageous that Republicans in Congress are politicizing Hurricane Irene disaster relief funding. The number one job of our federal government is to protect people and in a time of crisis, it is our responsibility to be there for our citizens. I invite Rep. Cantor to come to New York to meet with the families and the business owners that have been so severely affected by this storm.”

Sen. Gillibrand and her fellow Democrats have benefited from comparisons between the praise being given to this Democrat-controlled White House’s response to the storm and the widely criticized failure of a Republican White House response during Hurricane Katrina.

It is widely assumed that Eric Cantor is one of the stars of the GOP’s future, possibly even as a president. Recall that he was on the short list for John McCain’s running mate in 2008. He is young, articulate and unafraid to throw a punch at his political opponents.

But as he tries to win the approval the Tea Party faction of the GOP, his extreme fiscally conservative positions look to have gone past the point of political advantage and begun to backfire.

Recall that Cantor very publicly undermined current House Speaker John Boehner earlier this summer by walking away from debt ceiling negotiations with the White House. That performance led to high disapproval for Republicans in Congress – poll numbers so bad they made President Obama’s paltry approval numbers look good.

Now he is sending the message that Congressional Republicans want to balance the budget on the backs of Hurricane victims.

The Tea Party is already vulnerable to charges that it is cutting government spending on everything but Medicare and Medicaid – entitlement programs that benefit its large following of seniors.

Cantor’s misadventure with Hurricane Irene is another illustration of the contradictions that are weakening the power of the Tea Party. Yes, Americans want small government and lower taxes. But there is a limit. And that is where Cantor and the core of the Tea Party went out of bounds. Only the most radical are saying they want to do away with all government.

Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His next book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.