The Eric Cantor Plan

Throughout the year, the Wall Street Journal has encouraged GOP intransigence as a way to get concessions from Democrats. But now—with the current fight over the payroll tax cut extension—the editors are worried that Republicans have taken it too far:

GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said a year ago that his main task in the 112th Congress was to make sure that President Obama would not be re-elected. Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.

The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

During the fight over the debt ceiling, there was tension between Boehner—who seemed to personally support a “grand bargain” with Obama—and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Tea Party leader in Congress. Cantor repeatedly walked away from any deal with the administration, placing Boehner in a tough spot, while at the same time maximizing his standing with Tea Party Republicans.

I wonder if we’re not watching a similar dynamic unfold with the payroll tax cut, with Boehner as the one who, again, thought he had the support of House Republicans, and Cantor as the spoiler who scuttled the deal for the sake of enhancing his bona fides with the Tea Party. The big question is: Why? The Tea Party is unpopular with most Americans, as are House Republicans. If Cantor’s goal is to increase his national profile, then standing with one of the most unpopular groups in American politics is a terrible idea.

Of course, perhaps Cantor's primary goal is to become Speaker of the House, in which case this could be a smart manuever. It may disadvantage the GOP as a whole, but Cantor stands to gain within his party by catering to its extreme right wing. If Republicans hold on to the House of Representatives—a likely scenario given the size of their majority—then they’ll have to choose a new Speaker, and there’s a chance Boehner would lose the bid for retaining his position. With Tea Party Republicans behind him, Cantor is in a good position to become the next Speaker of the House.

It should be said that this could all backfire. Republican instransigence could become so intolerable that voters respond by handing the House to Democrats. It’s still unlikely, but with Congress' record-high unpopularity, it’s not impossible.