Cheek to cheek

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Pity poor congressman Eric Cantor. For many years he was Virginia’s prime strutting peacock in the parliament—commanding camera time and local headlines every time he flashed his pearly whites and said something disparaging about the Democrats. Especially during the glory years from 2006 to 2008, when his only true competition on the national stage came from Jim Webb (who tends to stiff-arm the press like an NFL receiver on his way to the end zone) and John Warner (who was moving quickly toward retirement), Cantor could indulge his penchant for televised pontificating to his heart’s content.

But then, in 2008, Mark Warner was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Cantor suddenly discovered that he wasn’t the only pair of chiseled cheekbones and Chiclets-perfect choppers on the Hill. At first, Cantor probably thought he didn’t have much to fear. He did, after all, have an eight-year head start, and had already risen through the Republican ranks to the post of House Minority Whip, with his eyes firmly set on the top leadership post.

But then something peculiar happened. While Cantor got his wish (sort of), Mark Warner seems to be reaping the benefits.

After the House Democrats were more than double-decimated in the 2010 elections and Republicans took over, Cantor got to move up the food chain to become House Majority Leader (with his boss, John Boehner, now Speaker of the House). Warner, meanwhile, saw his party’s majority in the senate shrink from 58 to 53 (with two of those votes coming from Independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders).

Unfortunately for Cantor, however, the unruly caucus he now presides over seems to have little use for his brand of slick, smooth-talkin’ realpolitik. The Tea Party types who helped secure his majority want a fire-breathing donkey slayer, not a well-groomed used car salesman. And Cantor’s attempt to change his style have been painful to watch. When he recently defended the Republican Party’s proposed cuts to foreign aid and ocean safety, even in the wake of the horrific Japanese tsunami (“Essentially, what you are saying is to go borrow money from the Japanese so we can spend it there to help the Japanese”), he looked like a kidnapped hostage trying to spell out “Help me” with his blinking eyes.

Mark Warner, on the other hand, has been using his carefully crafted “pragmatic moderate” persona to its best advantage, teaming up with Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss to push a bipartisan debt-reduction plan. And to rub salt in the wound, Warner kicked off his big media blitz with a well-received press conference in Cantor’s hometown of Richmond.

So how will it all end? At this point it’s impossible to say. But regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain: Virginia’s national political face will continue to impress pundits everywhere with its pleasing combination of blinding white incisors, well-coiffed hair and cheekbones so sharp they could slice bread. Now that’s what we call bipartisanship! 

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