John Derbyshire Says Eric Cantor Made A Point—Conservatism Inc. Is Done. He Just Didn’t Mean To.
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A politician of the opposing party once described a typical Warren Harding speech as "An army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea."

In fairness to our nation's first black President, Harding's speeches weren't that bad. (You can actually listen to a small selection here.) He at least revivified an almost-forgotten word—no small achievement for an orator.

In the present concussed state of the Republican Party, even a Hardingian level of political rhetoric may be too much to hope for. Such at any rate was the impression I took away from Tuesday's speech at the American Enterprise Institute by Eric Cantor, a congressman from Virginia and current House majority leader.

I made the following random notes while watching the Real Clear Politics video of the speech. Numbers in parentheses refer to minutes and seconds into the video.

There is an introduction 1m50s long by Arthur Brooks, president of the AEI (and to the best of my knowledge, no relation to David Brooks.) Then comes Cantor's speech, 36m15s long, title "Making Life Work." The video closes with a brief Q&A period, 10m17s (eight questions).

There's a full pre-delivery transcript of the speech here, and Cantor didn't deviate much from it. (Though, unlike the transcript, he did get "pogrom" right.)

After some preliminary routine flourishes—social mobility, the Wright Brothers, huddled masses, blah blah—we get to the first big segment, on education.

(11m00s) Since 1965, the federal government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into improving schools, especially in low-income areas—over $15 billion last year. And frankly, the results have not matched the investment.


So, Congressman, you're going to cancel Head Start, then? Ha ha ha ha! Just kidding!

Still on education, at 11m17s we get the first of a parade of Lenny Skutniks. This first is one Joseph Kelley of Washington, D.C., whose son Rashawn was falling behind at school.

Joseph would try and sit in on classes in order to help Rashawn, but was met with hostility …

I should certainly hope so. Having taught inner-city kids myself, I can assure Mr. Cantor that no teacher could do his job with parents sitting in the classroom, even in a society less litigious than ours. If Mr. Kelley had shown up in mine, I'd have been yelling for the security guards.

When—I am asking rhetorically—when did it enter the heads of GOP panjandrums that being anti-schoolteacher is a good electoral strategy? I imagine that the train of thought pursued its sluggish course through their brains somewhat like this: The schools are lousy. Whom should we blame? The parents? Good grief, no! The school boards? They ARE parents. The students? Perish the thought! I know: Let's blame the teachers!

Even the premise is incorrect. When results are disaggregated by ethnicity, our schools do well in the international comparisons. We educate white kids as well as any white country, Hispanic kids as well as any Hispanic country, and so on. True, we have a fair proportion of ineducables, but so does everyone else. Our current approach to the ineducables—make them take Algebra!—is borderline insane, but you won't hear that from Cantor, only feelgood claptrap about "opportunity."

… and even had to obtain a court order so Rashawn could have a tutor.

Really? As detailed in Bob Weissberg's book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, pp. 208-210), there is a huge array of affordable non-school options—online tutoring, "cram academies" and the like—even in the poorest neighborhoods. Some were made free to students from failing schools under the original No Child Left Behind Act. Weissberg:

City after city reported a nearly identical experience: huge numbers of lagging students were offered a free tutoring option, often in the school they already attend, but only about 10 percent signed up, and even then, most dropped out after a few sessions.

Cantor continues:

(12m00s) Violence was so prevalent in Rashawn's schools that there were eight D.C. police officers patrolling it on a daily basis.

Definitely a "failing school," then. That violence, however, is not caused by any lack of opportunity: it's caused by chronically unruly kids. There is no government fix for that.

Mr. Kelley is an exception in minding that his children attend such a school. As Prof. Weissberg extensively documents, most inner-city parents couldn't care less. They like their neighborhood schools, even the "failing" ones.

Mr. Kelley availed himself of a federally-funded voucher program and got Rashawn and his three sisters into a private school.

(12m33s) Within two years at a private school, Rashawn caught up to his classmates, and he's now a student in college. And his sisters, who are with us here today as well—Domonique, Shakeyta and Rhunetta—are attending the Preparatory School of DC and are on a similar path to opportunity.

I note in passing that no white person in the history of the Republic ever named a child Rashawn, Domonique, Shakeyta, or Rhunetta. The fact that Eric Cantor wanted us to hear these names illustrates the rather pathetic, whimpering neediness of the GOP towards black Americans. If only we do THIS, they'll start voting for us!

Possibly: but for every one of them that might, this moon-booted pandering turns off a hundred nonblack voters, and indeed probably a few black ones too. They don't want you, guys. Get over it.

Cantor goes on to make a case for schools to compete for students, with federal funding favoring poorer kids. The problems here are that no school—certainly no private school—wants the kids that need eight cops to supervise them. For the deserving poor like Mr. Kelley there are already plenty of escape routes. Federal funding? Oh, like Head Start? …

Back to the Kelleys.

(13m9s) Now they have great teachers, terrific administrators, small class sizes, and a mission that says every kid's got to succeed.

Speaking again as an ex-schoolteacher, let me tell Rep. Cantor that the secret of education policy is to get decent results from teachers who are not sensationally "great," just average working sclubs. Politicians shouldn't be in the miracle-cure business. They should be in the business of figuring out how to make the humdrum everyday world work a little better.

(13m17s) Now no-one should deny Rashawn or his sisters this opportunity. [Applause]

That was the only audible applause during the entire speech—which is why I have dwelt on this segment. Plainly the AEI audience liked that stuff. Why? (Actually not all of them liked it: see 46m34s below.)

On to college education:

(15m38s) Less than sixty percent of the students who enroll in a four-year program graduate within six years. Clearly, something's broken.

Why, yes: too many people are going to college. Charles Murray, an AEI Fellow (was he in the audience?) estimated in his 2008 book Real Education  (p. 75) that no more than ten percent of college-age persons—one-third of the current college-attending cohort—are intellectually qualified to cope with college-level instruction, and many of those should avoid college for non-intellectual reasons.

Then we commence a gentle, gradual segue from education towards immigration policy.

(15m58s) There is a persistent unmet demand of 400,000 to 500,000 job openings in the health care sector alone . . .

Fruit rotting in the fields! Or in this case, patients lying unattended in hospital wards.

 . . . Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major. What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities?

As the parent of two college-age kids, I can assure Rep. Cantor that these things are already common knowledge. Even high school kids know that Art History and English Literature are rich-kid majors—I have heard mine joking about it.

(17m41s) A good education leads to more innovation. Throughout our history, American colleges and universities have served as the crucible for the world's innovation.

A bit of a stretch. Didn't we start there with the Wright brothers, who, if memory serves, didn't graduate high school? Thomas Edison, the greatest innovator of all time, didn't even make it to high school.

(18m16s) Each year our colleges and universities graduate approximately 40,000 foreign nationals …

Yep—here it comes!!!!!!

… with Masters and PhD degrees, many of whom are then forced to leave the country because there are not enough visa slots in our immigration system to permit them to stay. So rather than being able to invent things here in America, grow businesses or start one on their own, they do all of those things somewhere else.

Note the nasty little contradiction here at the heart of Open-Borders globalism as preached to a national audience. If, as the globalists tell us, all that nation-state stuff is hopelessly antiquated—if people and places are fungible and free trade the ideal—then what does it matter where they do their inventing? Why do we particularly want them to do it here?

To benefit Americans? But why should not Americans flow frictionlessly across the so-called borders to wherever Mr. Nagaswamy or Ms. Zhang has set up a factory?

The first thing—only the first, mind—to be said about Open-Borders globalism is that it doesn't make sense. More precisely, it can't be sold to a patriotic audience without committing serious sleight of mouth.

We then get a sob story about a lady from China with a STEM degree (IT operations research) who'd like to stay here and "invest her talents in America."

In fact there are not enough STEM jobs to go round. It is entirely right and proper that American citizens should have first dibs at the jobs that exist.

If the discontent this causes among foreign graduates is distressing to our legislators, the remedy is simple: Cut back on the number of student visas.

The labor market would signal a shortage of STEM professionals by a rapid rise in salaries. This is not happening. When it does, let's talk STEM visas.

Isn't the GOP supposed to be the party that believes in market signals?

Stagnant median incomes … rising health care costs … Taxes:

(24m16s) Just filling out a W-4 at a new job is confusing. You really shouldn't need a worksheet to see how many dependents you have.

We all agree with you, Congressman. However, we've been promised tax simplification for thirty years, and nothing gets done. (Well, a little iddy bit got done under Reagan; but is soon got undone.) Ordinary citizens have concluded that tax complexity is such a central interest of the ruling class that only social revolution on a Storm-The-Bastille scale would stop it. Not wishing for that, they have given up hope.

Health care:

(27m49s) ObamaCare has unnecessarily raised the costs of our health care. Even those who have pre-existing conditions could get the coverage they need without a trillion dollar government program costing all of us more.

How? No rational insurance company will sell coverage to someone with a pre-existing condition. That's not what insurance companies are for. What they are for is, to let us make provision for events that may not occur—accidents, early death. If the event has already occurred, for an insurance company to get involved would be a betrayal of its duty to shareholders. Public provision (though not necessarily federal) is unavoidable here.

(33m40s) People across the globe want to become part of our country …

People living in poor and ill-governed countries would prefer to go live in rich and well-governed countries. Duh. But are citizens of rich countries obliged to let them do so? May we at least ask citizens what they think about this?

… We must never diminish that desire …

Why not? What control over it do we have, anyway?

… or worse, become a place that is no longer desirable.

Who has suggested doing so?

(33m52s) It's no secret that there are more than 11 million people here illegally, many of whom have become part of the fabric of our country …

You know, like the Brooklyn Bridge. Who'd want to tear it down?

… They, like us, have families and dreams …

Also eyes, noses, feet, intestines … What's your point, Congressman?

… While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew …


Other nations are not? Is it harder in Bolivia, Bangladesh, or Britain than here for, say, an ex-con to get a job?

… we are also a nation of laws.

Well, unless you are the aunt or uncle of someone powerful.

(34m40s) One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents.

It is? In which founding document can I find a statement of that principle? In all countries everywhere, at all times, children have suffered for their parent's mistakes. If I invest foolishly, lose all my money, and have to sell my house to go live in a trailer park with meth addicts, will my children not suffer? If I rob a bank and go to jail for it, will my children not suffer? When were these basic facts of life repealed?

 . . . It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.

This is a dramatic, if perhaps inadvertent, extension of the DREAM Act nonsense—not just valedictorians but all illegal children will be amnestied. And then we will deport the parents?

Not a word here about the ancillary problems with which this provision of an "opportunity" is barnacled.  How will a bureaucracy already hopelessly overburdened be able to check the validity of such documents as can be supplied by the "undocumented"? Will the Hispanic and nonwhite portion of these "children" be eligible for affirmative action?  Above all, what will be the numbers coming in as a result of chain migration of parents, siblings, parents’ siblings, . . .? 

Has Cantor attempted a calculation?  Have his researchers?  Has anyone at the RNC?  Anyone at AEI?  In the House?  [Crickets chirping.]   

 (35m27s) Now there are some who would rather avoid fixing the problem in order to save this as a political issue. I reject this notion …

"There are some …" Who? Somewhere the ghost of Richard Nixon is smiling.

(35m47s) A sonnet by Emma Lazarus …


(36m32s) Like so many of their generation living in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, my grandparents fled the vicious anti-Semitic pogroms of the czars of Russia to come to America.

Steve Sailer has remarked very wisely that immigration romantics would better serve their nation by thinking less about the country their grandparents fled and more about the country their grand-children will live in.

Cantor concludes with some political boilerplate about "upholding this legacy" and "making tough choices."

The Q&A added very little value. In response to the questions, Cantor just repeated snippets from his speech.

One questioner asked about STEM jobs:

(42m10s) What things do you think the Republicans in the Congress can do to get more young people in the United States to pursue careers in math, science, and engineering—the STEM fields that [sic] there seem to be so many opportunities?


The correct answer would be: stop foreign STEM workers coming in so that salaries could rise until they are attractive to Americans. But Cantor just rehashed the stuff about colleges telling parents which fields have good job prospects, as if we can't figure this out for ourselves.

Right at the end there was just one brief whiff of incense from the old-time Conservative religion:

(46m34s) Can you say a few more words about what you see as the proper role for the federal government in education? I understand why Democrats and progressives want centralized education programs. Don't Republicans and conservatives see education as a state and local function?

Cantor kept his composure pretty well in the face of this grunting Neanderthal. He has three kids, he told us. Public-school educated! Education starts with parents. "We've got to set up a system where we empower parents." The federal government doesn't provide that much to schools. Redirect those funds. Parents back in the driver's seat, not some failing school system.

His time up, or possibly just spooked by this Creature from the Reaganite Lagoon, Cantor bade us a quick farewell and hightailed it out of there.

What was the point of the speech? Let Rep. Cantor tell us:

(39m50s) My message today is to make sure that we explain and demonstrate how our proposals actually benefit people. It's about making life work again for more people.

And later:

(46m20s, responding to the question: "Who really speaks for the Republican Party at this point?") "The point of my talk today is to say that we, Republicans in the house, are dedicated to those ends."

What ends? Well, Cantor had just run down his list of Lenny Skutniks. This one worried about taking care of his kids; the next (the foreign student), about "having the ability to stay in this country to help all Americans"; a third wants "to see results."

Altogether, Cantor’s speech was very depressing: An army of threadbare clichés moving over the landscape in search of lost voters.

But why were the voters lost? The GOP Establishment, for whom Cantor undoubtedly speaks, seems to agree with Leftist commentators that it is lost because Republicans did not sufficiently resemble Democrats.

Yet below the national level, the plain fact is that not that many voters were lost. Thirty states have Republican governors; 26 are entirely GOP-controlled.

Locally, there might be something to build on there, if the clammy death-grip of the national party could be pried off, and some life breathed into the conservative heart of Republicanism—under the banner of a new party, perhaps.

But it's plain that Conservatism Inc. is not up to the job. There could be no clearer illustration of this than a 36-minute speech at a prime Conservatism Inc. venue containing not a single idea less than 30 years old, not a single indication that the diligent debunkers of educational and immigration romanticism have been heard, not a trace of resistance to the special-interest party financiers, not a single striking image or memorable phrase.

Let's at least say this for Eric Cantor, though: He made an important point on Tuesday.

It just wasn't the point he intended.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimismand several other books. His writings are archived at

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