House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Thursday urged his party, and the nation, to guard against intolerance on issues ranging from gay marriage to the role of Muslims in the government, arguing the country’s diversity of opinion and acceptance are part of America’s basic fabric.
“There can’t be some kind of monolithic opinion handed down from the government or a political party. I don’t think we’re monolithic beings,” Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said in an interview with BuzzFeed.
Cantor is one of his party’s leading conservatives generally, and has long been a strong supporter of the often-divisive cultural issues near and dear to his conservative base’s heart. He is also explicitly pro-life and has a long track record of opposing gay marriage. Indeed, as part of his duties as Majority Leader, Cantor has scheduled numerous votes on abortion and other hot-button cultural issues over since the start of the 112th Congress.
But many Republican leaders, including Cantor, are struggling to move past the charged battles on social issues, and to focus the party’s rhetorical energies almost entirely on the economy. Although Cantor did not directly address whether the GOP’s position on gay marriage is hurting its ability to recruit younger voters or broaden its appeal, he argued the issue is part of the broader cultural question of acceptance and tolerance, not only with his party but the society at large.
“I think an even bigger issue than that, from a cultural standpoint, is the acceptance of diversity. And the acceptance of diversity of opinion,” Cantor said, explaining that while he may have is own personal opinions on morality or religion, “at some point we’re all here as Americans and we all have to be appreciative of other people’s views.”
“And it’s that tolerance, I think that that tolerance is something that enables people to be passionate about their positions. And if you’re for gay marriage, this country allows you to express your views. Some states support it and allow it, and others don’t. But its ok to have that difference of opinion in that,” he said.
Cantor, who is also part of the leadership group that has brought a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s decision to not enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, argued that open discussion and diversity are what make the nation “unique,” and warned against institutional attempts to enforce a standard position on the population.
When asked if the Republican Party specifically needs to do a better job of accepting opinions on gay marriage and other cultural issues that do not align with party orthodoxy, Cantor said “absolutely.”
“I’ve always said we need to be a party of inclusion not exclusion,” Cantor said. “We need to be promoting tolerance and, you know, as someone who is a religious minority, I sort of grew up with having that mindset, knowing full well that I am in a very distinct way from a religious background, separate and apart from the mainstream of this country.”
Cantor also warned against efforts by some conservatives to demonize Muslim Americans working in the government as potential enemies of the state, an issue that has become a cause celebre on Capitol Hill this summer after Rep. Michele Bachmann denounced a top aide to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin.
It is “absolutely wrong to stereotype or look badly at anyone because of their religion. Obviously I would say that,” said Cantor, who is Jewish; he was not speaking specifically about Bachmann’s comments.
“It’s a bad thing to look at a Muslim and think bad things. Again, we’re all Americans here and we share beliefs in freedom and the ability to practice our faiths,” the Majority Leader argued, pointing to his time in the state legislature in Virginia.
“There’s a plaque on the wall, a granite plaque that has engraved in it [Thomas Jefferson’s] statute on religious freedom that then was written into the bill of rights.”
The breadth of religious beliefs and views “that has created in our country is also what makes us unique. Because people can embrace whatever religion they want.”
As for this year’s election, Cantor said he is “cautiously bullish” on the GOP’s chances a strong showing in November on the House level.
“I check Intrade pretty often to see where markets think we are,” Cantor said. “I think our members understand the last election was a wave election and its not going to be the same this year and they’ve done what they need to do.”
“There is some positive to the fact that we’ve been a counter, or a check, to the agenda that Obama was about during his first two years. So we’re working hard to try and communicate our positive solutions and alternatives to the Obama agenda,” he said.
On efforts to bring youth voters into the Republican fold, Cantor argued the GOP can make inroads using an economic message — as long as they engage the younger voters.
“Going on to college campuses, being involved in new media efforts, being involved and part of the conversation” will be key to those efforts, he said. “Our party has not always been there in the mix,” he acknowledged, adding that Republicans have begun to make “huge strides” particularly in social media efforts.
“The way to get young people to get inspired is to present the dream of starting something of your own,” Cantor said.
The Virginian pointed to an event he did earlier this month at the Da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. During his meeting with students, “I said, ‘how many of you think you want to start your own business?’ and they must have 16 or 18 kids, maybe 20 kids, and all but two raised their hands and said they wanted to start their own business.”
“That’s what this country is about, and that’s frankly what the youth of this country are about. You know young people want to go in and have this unfettered ability to make a difference, to make something of their own,” he added.
As for the presidential contest, Cantor said he is confident “Mitt Romney will win the presidency.”
Cantor said he has discussed with Romney potential strategies in his home state of Virginia, which is one of the key battleground states in the country.
Like many of the swing states, Virginia — which Cantor called “arguably the number one swing state” — has done better during the economic downturn than most states.
That, Cantor said, will require Romney to take a regional approach, tailoring his message to the various parts of the state.
“If the election is really going to be elected with the independents, the six percent in the middle, they’re not really paying yet, and if things are better for them than they are elsewhere, the question is going to be, how do you get them interested? What is their motivating factor to vote for Romney?”
In the Richmond area, “the economic issues, taxes, are very strong,” Cantor said, noting that its taxes, its how are we going to make it easier for more economic growth … that is the message to the suburban mom who I think is the sort of independent voter that is going to win it for us.”
In the Northern Virginia and state’s southeastern region, “its all about defense. It is all about the jobs that are created by defense spending. And this looming sequester that the president just seems to want to ignore will cause massive layoffs,” Cantor said.
In the state’s southwest corner, “the economy there is tied to the coal industry. And Obama has clearly made his position well known, and that is, he is hostile to the coal industry, and that means jobs and livelihoods,” Cantor said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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