In a major policy address at the conservative American Enterprise Institute Tuesday, Cantor said Republicans are looking beyond the budget brinksmanship that's gripped the right for years to a new, more narrowly tailored agenda for the middle class.
"In Washington, over the past few weeks and months, our attention has been on cliffs, debt ceilings and budgets, on deadlines and negotiations," he said. "All of this is very important, as there is no substitute for getting our fiscal house in order. ... But today, I'd like to focus our attention on what lies beyond these fiscal debates."
Some of the ideas he described were old, some new. Some would genuinely serve the interests of a wider electorate, others would not. But even if Republicans shift their rhetorical focus to less objectionable policies they're still devoting all of their legislative heft to the same platform and style of governance that cost them the election.
On Capitol Hill this week, Republicans have dedicated themselves to passing symbolic legislation that, if signed into law, would force President Obama to submit a budget that eliminates the deficit. They've likewise committed themselves to passing a budget that balances the budget within 10 years, via spending cuts alone, which in effect will require slashing federal programs -- from health care to transportation to border security to scientific research -- even more deeply than they proposed in their previous budgets.
Meanwhile they've never seriously grappled with the harm that axing the federal government would cause the economy, and remained unmoved Tuesday when the Congressional Budget Office, in its annual outlook, warned that the austerity measures already on the books will snuff out most of the country's economic potential this year.
Nevertheless, as Cantor delivered his remarks, GOP leaders simultaneously denounced Obama's proposal to pay down the sequester's deep spending cuts with a mix of more gradual cuts and higher taxes on wealthy interests. For them, the sequester -- all $1.2 trillion worth -- can only be paid down with cuts to other programs. No new revenue, no matter the source, according to influential Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK).
In order then, replacing the sequester with cuts to food stamps and Medicaid would be preferable to letting the sequester take effect, but both would be preferable to any sequester replacement that includes even a thimble full of tax revenue wrung from closing loopholes that benefit powerful interests.
The GOP's real, immediate priorities are thus no different than they were before the election.
Those priorities didn't carry the day in November. And in the months since, Republicans, and the conservative movement writ large, have been debating amongst themselves whether their priorities need an overhaul, or whether they just need to shoehorn them into packaging that will appeal to the broad middle class.
That internal struggle continues to some extent over the issue of immigration reform. But the new argument on the right isn't over whether the GOP's problem is substance or salesmanship, but whether it should sell its real priorities, or a separate bill of second-order goods.