Rep. Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
Center stage in the debt limit/government default drama now playing in Washington is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Seldom off stage, he was instrumental in forcing Speaker of the House John Boehner to resist President Obama’s plea to make a jumbo deal—a deal that would have required Boehner to accept tax increases in exchange for deep budget cuts. During a meeting of congressional leaders in the White House Cabinet Room last night, it was Cantor who did most of the talking on the House Republican side, as he reiterated the no-tax increase mantra.  

Here in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel may be busy with the latest weekend tragedy of street gangs’ bullets missing their targets and hitting children, but he is surely keeping his eye on Capitol Hill, his old stomping ground. Were he still there, he would be playing the Cantor role on the other side of the aisle.

When President Obama asked Emanuel to quit Congress and serve as his chief of staff, Emanuel wasn’t posturing when he appeared tortured and portrayed accepting the powerful White House post as a sacrifice.

Hence his now infamous taped telephone call to Rod Blagojevich asking if the then-governor could appoint Rahm’s buddy Forrest Claypool as a 5th District seat warmer until Rahm could escape the White House and return to the Congress—and his goal of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House.  

With Emanuel’s ascension to first Jewish mayor of Chicago, the Speaker dream is defunct. 

It has been replaced, I believe, by a grander dream—of becoming the first Jewish president. When George Stephanopoulos asked the new Mayor about running for the White House in 2016, Rahm’s response was hardly Shermanesque.

For Cantor, the first Jewish majority leader—and the only Jewish Republican in either the House or Senate, the dream of becoming the first Jewish Speaker is very much alive. Some observers see his Speakership as a pit stop en route to becoming the first Jewish president, but others say he doesn’t have what it takes to reach the White House.

"Cantor has positioned himself precisely where he wants to be. It’s realistic for [him] to aim for Speaker," says political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "I think president is a real stretch, not because of his religion but because Cantor lacks the kind of charisma that is needed on right or left to win the White House."

At odds with (and disdainful of) Boehner, his boss, Cantor—who represents the area around and including Richmond, Virginia—walked out of debt ceiling negotiations with Vice President Joe Biden, giving Boehner just 40 minutes notice. Cantor is tougher, less flexible, and more Tea-Party-friendly than Boehner. An attorney elected to Congress in 2000, the Richmond native is a "Young Gun" by his own designation; he’s 48 to the laconic Boehner’s 61.

A canny, wiry, aggressive, hyperactive, manipulative workhorse—sound familiar?—Cantor carries the power presence in Congress that once belonged to Rahm. That’s where the similarities stop. Cantor wears glasses, looks seriously nerdy, speaks with a southern drawl, and pushes an agenda that is anathema to Rahm, even lately when Rahm’s critics complain that his pragmatic approach to winning at all costs has robbed him of his core principles.   

Cantor shares with Rahm another talent that separated Rahm from most of his 434 House colleagues: he is a talented and tireless fundraiser.  

Like Rahm, Cantor knows how to build loyalty: According to Politico’s John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman, “Cantor has given [Republican] candidates more than $1 million directly from his leadership political action committee and plans to give $1 million more.”

He’s staunchly pro-Israel—a credential that Emanuel, the son of a Israeli immigrant, seems not to clutch quite as tightly as he once did. Writing on the op-ed page of The Washington Post, Emanuel supported President Obama’s call for Israel to return to the ’67 borders "with mutually agreed [land] swaps."

The country got its first black president in 2008. Perhaps in 2016 or 2020, Rahm will become the first Jewish president. But not if Cantor gets there first.


Photograph: United States Congress