House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor stressed self-reliance and an entrepreneurial spirit as he laid out his vision of America during a speech Friday at the University of Virginia.
Speaking to a room of would-be leaders enrolled at UVa’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Cantor tied his family history to what he sees as one of the defining themes of the 2012 election.
“With the freedom afforded by America, we give people the ability to chase their dream, but it’s up to them to go out and earn it,” Cantor said in his speech in the great room at Garrett Hall.
The Richmond-area Republican, whose 7th District includes Orange, Madison and Louisa counties, said his grandmother came to America at the turn of the last century to escape religious persecution in Eastern Europe. Cantor’s grandparents married in New York and began a life in Richmond, but his grandfather died shortly after Cantor’s father was born.
“My grandmother found herself a single mom, in her early 30s, in the segregated South, as a Jewish widow trying to raise two sons,” Cantor said. “What she did is she put those two sons in a tiny apartment over top of a grocery store that she and her husband had opened, and she went about chasing that dream … She took the opportunity and the responsibility to make it on her own.”
Through hard work, thrift and dedication to her faith, Cantor said, his grandmother was able to enter the middle class and fulfill a “classic American dream.”
“Just a generation after her sons, she had a grandson who’s now serving in the United States Congress and is the majority leader of the House of Representatives. But it’s this country that does that,” Cantor said. “It is the unique nature of this country that we are about upward mobility. And we recognize, as well, we’re compassionate people. Not everybody is born with the tools to go out there and do it, so we have a government there to provide the safety net, to provide the tools so that everyone has the opportunity to earn the success like my grandmother did …”
Cantor said the country is becoming more and more reliant on government, with 36 percent of its residents on the government payroll or receiving government entitlements and more than 45 percent of people who “do not pay anything” in income taxes.
“The question is: Where are we headed?,” Cantor said. “Are we going to be a country of equal opportunity? Or are we going to shift more into that realm, where some of our older allies are in Europe, and be focused on equal outcomes?”
Four Democrats and one Republican have filed to unseat Cantor, but the second-ranking House Republican has a massive fundraising lead over his challengers, according to Federal Election Commission records.
After a speech lasting a little more than 20 minutes, Cantor talked with Batten School students about immigration and health care in what he later called a “high-level policy discussion.”
“Some … would argue that your grandmother’s story may not be possible today because there is such a backlog of problems in the immigration system,” said Addie Bryant, a first-year Batten student from San Antonio.
Cantor agreed that America has a “very antiquated” immigration system, but he drew a sharp line between legal and illegal immigration.
“The two have been very conflated in the public debate,” Cantor said, adding that laws should be enforced and legal immigrants should be encouraged.
Cantor drew an analogy by saying most Americans driving through a desolate Texas desert would stop at a stop sign even if there were no cars in sight.
“We are law-abiding,” Cantor said. “That’s part of the reason we are able to offer this great economic marvel of the American dream … because we have laws that are evenly applied.”
Cantor said he hopes to advance legislation later this year related to high-skilled labor and H1-B visas and retaining foreign students.
“UVa is no different. There are a lot of foreign nationals in our graduate programs, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas,” Cantor said. “We should want those people to stay here.”
Cantor was also asked how Republicans would move forward on health care if the 2010 Democratic overhaul is struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
He answered by describing a meeting at the White House early in the health care debate, saying that President Barack Obama had started by focusing on costs, and ended up focusing on access.
“What happened in the end when they passed that bill was everyone feeling good because everyone was going to have access, but there’s very little cost containment …,” Cantor said. “So, to fool yourself to thinking you’re going to afford people access, without the ability to control costs, you really didn’t get anywhere.”
Cantor said the Republican idea of containing costs is “opening up health care to choice again” by making small-group and individual insurance markets more competitive by creating tax parity between businesses and employers, allowing insurance purchases across state lines, “merit-based compensation” for doctors and advances in health-care information technology.
Student Aaron Chafetz, president of the Batten Council, introduced Cantor, calling the congressman someone who has made service to the country his “life’s mission.”
“Congressman Cantor has emerged as a leading voice on the economy and health care reform,” Chafetz said. “… As The Washington Post once noted, ‘rarely do Republicans mention Congressman Cantor without calling him a rising star.’ Congressman Cantor’s devotion to public service certainly aligns with the Batten School’s motto: Policy is everywhere. Lead from anywhere.”
Cantor opened his speech by calling himself a “Wahoo parent,” pointing out that his oldest son attends UVa and saying another son, currently a high school senior, is a “rising Wahoo.”