Today’s Op/Ed page features an extraordinary column by an extraordinary human being. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-7th) uses the space as a platform to announce his resignation from the House of Representatives. Thursday marked his final day as majority leader, a post he said he would relinquish after he lost the Republican primary on June 10. His official resignation from Congress will take place on Aug. 18.
By resigning now, Cantor is putting the interests of his constituents and his successor first. Although Congress confronts numerous contentious issues, relatively little will occur before the November election. The big votes will come during a lame-duck session. The 7th District deserves to be represented by a member who will have received a mandate from the electorate.
Cantor’s resignation would allow the district to hold two simultaneous elections — a special election to fill the remainder of his term and the general election to fill the term that will begin next year. This week saw the passing of Caldwell Butler, the Republican from the Roanoke-based 6th District who, while a freshman in the House, voted to impeach Richard Nixon. In 1972, Butler won special and regular elections on the same day. Cantor’s decision follows an admirable precedent.
Cantor’s position as a former party leader would have put him and his colleagues in an awkward position. His replacement also would enjoy an edge on the other newcomers elected in November.
Cantor rates as the most significant Republican in Virginia history. No one else has risen to his stature. He clearly would have become speaker of the House, perhaps as early as January. Cantor served as floor leader during difficult times for the nation and his party. The political air is rank. Indeed, the fetid atmosphere contributed to his defeat in the primary. Status as majority leader usually would accrue to the representative’s benefit. The title hurt Cantor. To Republicans and independents who despise Congress generically, it identified him as a symbol of their disaffection. Cantor’s visibility also lured Democrats to vote against him as a means to bring down one of Washington’s most powerful Republicans. The June 10 results may have pleased Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi more than they pleased the tea party.
Decades ago, party leaders could enforce discipline. Few Democrats dared cross Sam Rayburn, for instance. Those times have vanished. The GOP caucus is restive and perhaps chaotic. Its members seem eager to challenge the authority not only of Cantor but also of Speaker John Boehner. This week Gov. Terry McAuliffe — a partisan Democrat — said Virginia would miss Cantor, whose clout had the potential to protect the state’s interests during difficult budget battles. The delegation also is losing longtime Reps. Jim Moran (D-8th) and Frank Wolf (R-10th) to retirement. Seniority plays a role in congressional deliberations. By the way, if McAuliffe had spoken before the primary, he would have hurt the Republican even more among an agitated base.
Cantor is a rare politician. His skills in managing the legislative system took him into the leadership. He also has devoted himself to ideas and to getting things done. Giving citizens a reason to vote against the other party is not enough, he believes. He wants to give citizens a reason to vote for a Republican agenda. He has stressed programs to promote opportunity and to encourage Americans to have aspirations and to nurture and attain them. His participation in the re-enactments of the Selma to Montgomery march earned him the admiration of competitors on the other side of aisle. His promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education would prepare students of diverse backgrounds for the workforce of the 21st century. He secured funding (by shifting dollars from other accounts) for research into childhood diseases. His legislation, which was championed in the Senate by Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, honored Gabriella Miller, a youngster from Northern Virginia who bravely fought a fatal disease before succumbing.
Cantor understands the imperatives of national security, the federal government’s pre-eminent obligation. The House will miss his expertise regarding the Middle East. His support of Israel is resolute — and proper. He recognizes the need for American leadership. The situations in Ukraine and other cauldrons result in part from American abdication.
He is a man of quiet faith. Electoral defeats can prove devastating. Sports teams that lose championships suffer defeat at the hands of the victorious team. Candidates who lose at the ballot box suffer rejection from their fellow citizens. The circumstances of being upset in a primary surely compound the pain. Cantor has drawn comfort and strength from sacred texts. “I seek refuge in You, O Lord; may I never be disappointed. As You are beneficent, save me and rescue me; incline Your ear to me and deliver me. Be a sheltering rock for me to which I may always repair; decree my deliverance, for you are my rock and fortress,” the Psalmist says.
Cantor may be leaving the House but he will not be absenting himself from politics. He intends to remain active and to ensure that Republicans propose alternatives worthy of the electorate’s endorsement. We will miss his presence in the House but will welcome his active engagement. In interviews with the Editorial Board, he has reiterated his confidence in the United States and in Americans. He has not surrendered to the angry despair abroad in the land.
Cantor came to the political world naturally. His gifts were displayed early as though he were to the manner born. Young Eric Cantor saw rainbows; throughout his life he has pursued them. We salute him.