Authors: Eric Cantor;Paul Ryan;Kevin McCarthy
I am the grandson of immigrants, and, as such, my life has been blessed with both the strong religious faith and hard working, entrepreneurial ethic that so many immigrants bring to America.
My paternal grandmother’s family came to America the way so many of our forefathers and foremothers did—penniless
and proud. Her family fled Russia amid the anti-Semitism and bloody pogroms that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution.
My grandmother, who was widowed at a young age, lived at the corner of St. James and Charity streets in downtown Richmond, in a historically African-American neighborhood, where she raised two children above a tiny grocery store that she owned and operated. She worked day and night and sacrificed tremendously to secure a better future for her children. And sure enough, this young woman whose family had the courage to journey to a distant land with hope as their only possession—lifted herself into the ranks of the middle class. Through hard work, thrift, and faith, she was even able to send her two children to college.
It was through my grandmother’s eyes that I developed a vision of America and its promise. In its purest sense, America is about looking forward. It’s about the quest for freedom and opportunity. It’s about persevering to pass on something better for your children than you inherited.
And if my belief in the American principles of freedom, opportunity, and tolerance come from my grandmother, the home that I have found for my principles in the Republican Party is thanks to one of the children she raised in that Richmond storefront: my father, Eddie Cantor.
People often ask me how I came to be a minority within a minority—an American who is not only Jewish but also a Republican. The short answer is—contrary to the myth of the Republican Party as bigoted and intolerant—my experience
has been that it is the party for all Americans who want an opportunity to build a better future for their children and grandchildren.
I know, because it was the Republican Party that gave my father the opportunity to provide a better life for me and my family. Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s was not as open and tolerant a place as it is now. My mom and dad saw firsthand the racial segregation that was the norm at the time. They used to tell me the story of how, after they were married and my mother moved to Virginia from Baltimore, she boarded a bus in Richmond one day and took a seat in the back. Unfortunately, my dad was forced to direct her to the front of the bus because whites didn’t sit in the back of the bus in those days.
And this fact didn’t sit well with my father. At the time, Virginia was controlled—and had been controlled since the 1920s—by a Democratic political machine headed by the powerful Byrd family. Known simply as “the Organization,” the Byrd organization did much to instill a limited government, low-taxation culture in Virginia. But in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Organization was a force of resistance to the growing civil rights movement, including resisting integrating Virginia’s public schools.
My father rejected the politics of racial discrimination. And it was in the small but growing Virginia Republican Party that my father found a home. The Republican Party was a place where he could be accepted and supported, both as an American Jew and as an entrepreneur. It was the
party that shared his belief in the conservative principles of family values and economic freedom.
Growing up, I came to share these values as well, but not for any lack of debate in the Cantor household. My mother and her Baltimore family were what the media would call considerably more “progressive” in their views than my father and his family. I remember trips to Virginia Beach and Ocean City with them that featured raucous debates about the issues of the day. It was my first exposure to politics.
My parents and grandparents also gave me a healthy exposure to the opportunities and the optimism that come with economic freedom, the type of opportunities that make our country so special, so unique, and so very different from any other in the history of human kind. Like my grandmother before me, I was then, and consider myself to this day, first and foremost a small businessperson. My first business was in real estate development and I learned the lesson that far too many small businessmen and -women learn when they try to be job creators: the process is tough, and the bureaucracy makes it tougher. In the process of building my business, I had encounters with regulators and bureaucrats who seemed completely disconnected to what it takes to run a business. They seemed to not know—or not care—what it takes to put your name on the line with a bank, what it takes to make a payroll, to pay taxes, and provide health-care benefits—all while constantly being held to account by whether you can afford to stay in business.
For anyone with a background in business, Washington DC can be a frustrating, even infuriating place. Talk about being disconnected from the realities of creating and maintaining jobs (if you’re not using the taxpayer money to do it, that is). In 2009, a J.P. Morgan research report examined the private sector business experience of Washington presidential cabinet officials since 1900 and found the current administration to have the least private sector experience of all the presidential administrations studied. The report looked at the secretaries of State, Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, Interior, Labor, Transportation, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. It excluded postmaster general, and the secretaries of Navy, War, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Health, Education, and Welfare, because they don’t have much to do with determining economic policy. Its findings were astonishing: over 90 percent of the prior experience of Obama administration cabinet officials was in the public sector. In other words, they were well schooled in the ways of government and the bureaucracy but few ever had to meet a payroll.
Now, there are some virtues to having a strong background in government. But in the midst of 10 percent-plus unemployment and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, resumes peppered with stints at HHS, USDA, DOJ, and the CCTP are not what we need. At a time when Americans desperately need jobs and job creators, we have a government of bureaucrats and regulators. No doubt there are good and conscientious bureaucrats and
regulators. But think about what this means for a minute. A good day for a bureaucrat—a day of doing his job well—is a day that is most likely spent enforcing regulations, collecting taxes, and creating hurdles for entrepreneurs to jump through. It’s not a day spent lowering taxes, breaking down barriers, and creating economic space for small business.
This administration just doesn’t understand small businesspeople. And Congress isn’t any better. The Democrats who control Congress, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are the most liberal of the liberal—way to the left of the American people and more liberal, even, than the Democratic rank and file. Many of the committee chairs, like Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, have been in Congress for over thirty years. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who has been forced to step down as the chairman of the all powerful Ways and Means Committee, has been in Washington since 1971, when Paul Ryan was a year old. In other words, the people who are making the nation’s energy and tax policy for America’s small business haven’t been in the private sector for over three decades. Even if they were inclined to take the private sector’s perspective, they wouldn’t be able to remember what it is.
Growing up an American Jew in the South also taught me that America is about diversity. Not the corrupted notion of diversity that is fashionable today, which says we are all in racial or ethnic straightjackets from which we can’t escape. I mean the American notion of diversity best expressed by those words “E Pluribus Unum”—“Out of many, one”—on the quarter in your pocket. To me, that says to the world that America is about opportunity and individual freedom. I’ve always believed that being an American is 85 percent about what you want to seek in life. The other 15 percent is the knowledge that there are Americans who are different from you and you have to have a tolerance for those differences. Far from being a handicap, being a Republican Jew has shown me what is best in America. You can be a minority within a minority and still make your way in this country.
In America there are no limits—that’s the message that Paul and Kevin and I are working so hard to communicate. That’s the kind of country we are working to preserve. There’s a powerful force in our politics today that rejects this view of America. It believes that individual Americans are, for the most part, victims in need of a nanny state. What’s worse, these voices in our politics are all too prone to demonize those who disagree with them. They label dissent, not as patriotism, but as jingoism or, far worse, racism.
No one is claiming the United States of America is perfect, and we most certainly have our faults like any other nation. But we are at the same time not like any other
nation. We have a unique set of founding, guiding principles that have made us great, despite our faults. No party has a monopoly on virtue. Public servants and private citizens who genuinely love this country and want the best for it exist in both parties. But I believe that it is the Republican Party whose principles best capture what has made America great. It is with the conservative principles of individual liberty, economic freedom, and support for families that America’s future rests. If I didn’t believe this was true, I wouldn’t call myself a Republican.
And that is why it is such a tragedy that Republicans in Washington fell short of our principles in the past.
The fact is, we had our chance, and we blew it. For Paul, Kevin, and me, America is about getting a fair chance to succeed or fail; it’s about giving individuals the freedom to soar to new heights as well as giving them the security they need when they fall down. This is what Americans want from their government. And what were we offering? A Bridge to Nowhere.
We got what we had coming.
A Year of Living Dangerously
I may never again have as good a seat as I had on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009. I was seated on the front steps of the Capitol, in the second row, with a bird’s-eye view of the president and his family as President Obama was sworn in. From my vantage point I could also look out at the sea of Americans stretching all the way back to the Washington Monument. Best of all, I could see the faces of the President and First Lady’s two young daughters, Sasha and Malia, as their father participated in the peaceful transfer of government that made him the most powerful man in the world. I found myself in awe, not only of the sight of the over one million Americans who had come to Washington that cold January day, but of my own privilege to be present for history in the making.
Barack Obama hadn’t been my candidate, but now he
was my president. Like many conservatives, I was fully aware of the message the American people had sent at the polls in November. Truthfully, it had been one of the most bitter and disappointing elections that I can remember. Combined with the thrashing we took at the polls in 2006, Republicans in the House of Representatives had lost 54 seats by the end of 2008—that’s 54 fewer votes we had to shape the future of the country, the future for my children—Jenna, Michael, and Evan—and the future for your children.