Eric Cantor has just flown in from Saudi Arabia to give a 10-minute speech in Washington. In a few hours, he’ll dash off to Helsinki for a week-long business trip.
But first, a few carefully considered words. “I don’t know who said this, but there’s a great quote: ‘Vision without execution is a hallucination,’ ” the former congressman tells the audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Somehow, in this town, we’ve gotten all hung up on, we’ve got to do these grandiose things, and we’ve got to get it done tomorrow.”
This is the new Eric Cantor, the measured private-sector sage with long-term ideas and international reach. As vice chairman of Wall Street investment bank Moelis and Co., he circles the globe – Dubai, Beijing, New York – advising companies on how to position themselves in the global marketplace.
Two years ago, he was the rising star of the Republican Party, the presumptive heir to the speakership of the House, until he was humiliated in a primary election by a political novice. Cantor was the first sitting House majority leader in history to lose his congressional seat, a defeat so unexpected that it shocked the unshockable political establishment, which called it one of the greatest political upsets of modern times.
It was also, as it turns out, a cautionary tale.
In hindsight, that contest wasn’t just a GOP primary election, Cantor says. It was a referendum on establishment politics, broken promises and angry voters’ growing distrust of Washington. He was at the epicenter of a populist uprising, the target of every disenfranchised voter in America.
“It turned into an anyone-but-Cantor vote,” he says, in an interview at his downtown office, during another rare touchdown between international trips. “But it was also a little bit of canary in the coal mine.”
Some politicians might have crawled home and grown a beard, turned self-pitying and bitter. Was he depressed? “I’m sure, if I got into analysis, I was,” Cantor says with a grin. “But I don’t sit still much.” Instead, the loss propelled him into a new life – lots of money, influence, powerful friends – among the 1 percent.
So the question before us: Was Eric Cantor unfairly run out of town? Or did he get out of Washington just in time?
On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, Cantor was so confident about his primary race that he spent most of the day in Washington. A poll taken two weeks earlier showed him leading his tea party challenger by 34 points. It wasn’t until he was driving home to Richmond that he realized something might be wrong. “I remember getting a call from my consultant saying, ‘It’s going to be a long night,’ and I was like, ‘What?'” he recalls.
First elected to Congress in 2000, Cantor had always breezed to victory in Virginia’s 7th District, a conservative stronghold that runs from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. In 2012, he got 79 percent of the primary vote and won the general election by 17 points. Now he was facing an unknown economics professor named David Brat, who had the support of conservative radio hosts. But Cantor had outspent him, outpolled him, and had every reason to believe that he was headed for an eighth term.
As it turned out, it was not a long night. The returns came in early with the devastating news that Brat had won by 11 points, capturing 55 percent of the vote.
Cantor remembers every detail of that night. “It’s still very vivid, indelibly etched,” he recalls. When it became clear that he was beaten, he turned to his wife and told her, “Diana, we’re going up onstage. You’re not going to cry. We’re going to get through this. It’s going to be fine.”
He was most worried about his three kids – now all in their 20s – who had never seen their father lose an election. “Here, all of a sudden, boom! In the most public way imaginable,” he says. “That, to me, was the hardest thing. I didn’t want them to get hurt.” In hindsight, it was a valuable lesson: “It did draw us closer, but it also showed them that life doesn’t always go your way.”
Pundits scrambled for an explanation: Cantor was uncompromising or too compromising. He supported too much immigration reform, or not enough. He raised too much money for other Republicans and didn’t spend enough time in his own district. He was too cozy with Wall Street. He was too ambitious. The list went on and on.
“There were a lot of people very focused on what in the world happened,” Cantor says. Personally, he believes that crossover Democrats voting in Virginia’s open primary sealed his fate.
The next day, the National Journal’s Ron Fournier penned a warning with this headline: “Elites Beware: Eric Cantor’s Defeat May Signal a Populist Revolution.”
It was the opening shot in an undeclared war: Voters were fed up and believed that Washington politicians such as Cantor were unable or unwilling to do anything to change that. Time to blow it up and start over.
Now 53, Cantor has barely aged since leaving Congress. There’s the same restless energy, the same Southern lilt, but not a trace of recrimination.
“He’s happy,” says longtime friend Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s a grown-up. He understands that you win and you lose. He’s not weird in any way, like so many politicians.”
But two years is a long time to reflect. As someone who was unceremoniously dumped after 22 years in elected office, Cantor has a few thoughts.
“There is such a loss of faith in the institution of Washington, in the government itself,” he explains, that voters “can’t listen to any politician at this point and believe them.”
Millions are still suffering from the 2008 recession and don’t feel that any politician has their backs. They’re scared and mad. “And they seem to think they don’t have any help out there in a very real way,” he says.
In this culture of distrust, there’s no patience for long-term vision or execution, a mind-set Cantor calls “short-termism.” And therein lies the problem that every politician in 2016 has to wrestle with: Angry people want solutions now! They want quick fixes and bold moves. They want deep touchdown passes, says Cantor, when the real business of governing is grinding out a first down on the field, making incremental progress, getting sacked and fighting back until you finally cross the goal line. It’s slow, it’s messy and it’s how the game is played.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Establishment Republicans thought that Cantor’s loss was an aberration, a unique set of circumstances that wouldn’t apply to, say, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or any other traditional candidate in 2016. In August, Cantor endorsed Bush, who shares his moderate Republican views. It looked like a positive for Bush: Cantor has a broad network of political donors nationwide and is still well-liked in GOP circles.
Trump responded with a tweet: “Who wants the endorsement of a guy (@EricCantor) who lost in perhaps the greatest upset in the history of Congress?”
Flash-forward to this summer, when Bush and all the other presidential hopefuls were swept aside by the tsunami that is Trump.
“I don’t like that he’s our nominee, but he is,” says Cantor. “I have reservations because he’s changed his position on so many issues, and I’m still offended that he makes fun of people with disabilities and minorities. Frankly, I don’t think he’s a role model for our children.”
But Cantor just can’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton. He knows what she’ll do as president and doesn’t like it. Trump is a wild card, but like so many in his party, Cantor is choosing the devil he doesn’t know.
This is his Hobson’s choice, and yet he doesn’t believe that what worked in the primaries will propel the GOP to victory in November: “Negativity, attack and anger will not be a sustainable campaign narrative in the general election,” he says. “It will not.”
Then again, he’s been wrong before.
In his 13 years in Congress, Cantor was a strategic pragmatist and prodigious fundraiser. He rose quickly through the Republican ranks, becoming whip in 2009, majority leader in 2011, and was expected to inherit the speakership when John Boehner retired. In 2010, he co-authored the bestseller “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders” with Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. He was a very big deal.
He was also a rarity among Republicans: the grandson of Russian Jews who came to Richmond a century ago, the son of a real estate developer. Cantor joined the family business after attending George Washington University, William and Mary Law School and Columbia University, where he met his wife on a blind date.
He married into an outspoken Democratic family, which gave him a knack, some say, for listening to opposing viewpoints. He bonded with Joe Biden during the 2011 debt-ceiling talks, and the two have remained close. “Eric is one of the brightest members I’ve ever dealt with – a man of enormous integrity whom I trusted completely,” says the Vice President. “He and I had strong disagreements, but we knew we had to arrive at a consensus.”
He remains friends with former colleagues on both sides of the aisle who say he was one of the few members who could bring together different factions. “He’s operational,” says Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, who serves as House minority whip. “He doesn’t simply take ideological positions and stick with them. He’s prepared to enter into discussions.”
Critics on the left – and there were many, including President Barack Obama – accused Cantor of playing hardball and enabling the stalemate between Congress and the White House. “He’s one of the reasons the system is broken today,” says a senior Democratic aide who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for his congressional boss. Cantor, he says, was disrespectful to Obama at every negotiation, aggressive and confrontational, and deeply disliked by many Democratic members.
Critics on the right, meanwhile, accused him of being soft on immigration, too compromising and too beholden to Wall Street.
Cantor concedes that liberals and conservatives got mad at him. Despite all the talk, the House leadership had not managed to pass legislation that improved American lives in tangible ways – and his constituents decided that he was making Congress worse, not better.
“It’s been years and years of promises,” he admits. Voters “want to see progress. But I don’t think anger is a sustainable solution to the problem.”
Now his name is a verb and a threat. “I think Paul Ryan is soon to be Cantored,” Sarah Palin told CNN last month, predicting that the speaker would lose to his tea party opponent in Wisconsin’s August primary unless he endorsed Donald Trump.
Cantor’s primary loss was the first major blow in a golden life. Both his parents were still alive then (his father died in 2015) and he was blessed with a happy marriage, healthy children and a successful career. Now he faced an uncertain future.
He resigned as majority leader six weeks after the primary and his congressional seat a month later, which allowed Brat to assume office after a special election.
By that time, Cantor was meeting with friends, former colleagues, anyone who would take his call: “I’ve always had this adage: If you want something, ask for advice.” That’s how he ended up at lunch with Ken Moelis, founder of Moelis and Co.
Cantor earned $193,400 as majority leader; his wife, a lawyer and investment banker, was the real moneymaker. One of the reasons he took the Moelis job, he says, was because it was his turn to support the family. “Life is about balance. For 14 years, she had been basically the breadwinner,” he says. “I felt that I needed to do this for her.”
His annual salary at Moelis is $400,000, and he received $1 million in stock (vested over five years) and a $400,000 signing bonus in cash in 2014, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In 2015, he was slated to make another $1.2 million and $400,000 in stock. The $3.4 million payday drew accusations of selling out; at the very least, Cantor jumped into America’s other least-trusted institution: Wall Street.
He says that both politics and Wall Street rely too much on short-term results over long-term success; he gets the cynicism toward and distrust of the 1 percent. But he explains that Moelis, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions, is not like the “too-big-to-fail” investment banks that were bailed out in 2008. “We are not one of those firms that has any kind of taxpayer backing,” he says.
Cantor was hired for his expertise in global markets and government regulation. He opened the bank’s Washington office in early 2015 but says he’s not a lobbyist: “I certainly know a lot of people, but I operate at the intersection of political risk, where public policy meets business-making decisions.”
Objectively, even Cantor could argue that he got out of Washington just in time: Now he enjoys a globe-hopping job, more money, the occasional media interview, lunch or dinner with friends on the Hill. He was looking forward to helping elect a Republican president in 2016.
Then Trump happened. “It’s very frustrating to me to see what’s going on with the party and to see what’s going on with the country,” says Cantor.
So the $3.4 million question: Would he ever jump back into politics?
Life, Cantor has learned, can be unpredictable: “I never say never.”