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Cantor’s Late Intervention

House Majority Leader may have pushed out GOP vet over anti-Jewish remarks

Dan Klein
April 11, 2012
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Yesterday Politico broke a—let’s say artfully timed—and Jewishly interesting inside baseball story behind House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s controversial decision to back freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger in a redrawn district primary against veteran Rep. Don Manzullo. Citing half-dozen Republican sources, the article suggests that Cantor’s decision may have been motivated by a years-old (alleged) remark from Manzullo suggesting that Cantor would not be “saved,” presumably in the rapture and not in a “What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank” sense. (I’m hoping I’m the first to make a political Nathan Englander joke).

Rich Carter, a Manzullo spokesman, denied his boss ever made such a comment. But the allegations made the rounds within the upper ranks of the House Republican Conference, leading Manzullo to request a meeting with Cantor in January to discuss what he considered an untrue — and damaging — rumor.

It’s an interesting story, but even more so for the timing. Cantor’s unusual backing of Kinzinger, already criticized as a flagrant attempt to broaden his powerbase of young conservatives, was pushed harder on the defensive last week when it was revealed he’d channeled money into the race through an anti-incumbent SuperPac. This story helps Cantor find a moral high ground by making Manzullo look bad. Thus a years-old story coming to light today.

There are two possible Jewish narratives. The good one is that the sole Jewish Republican member of Congress is willing to stand up to even low level anti-Semitism in his party. The other is that Cantor is a somewhat unusual American Jew (true enough) who, until its politically expedient, is willing to protect (hopefully) fringe members of his party.

I like the first, I’m leaning towards the second. Even as a whitewash for Cantor’s real motives, the story doesn’t make anyone look like heroes. The Jewish distrust of the Christian Right (and thus the Republican party) is re-enforced. Meanwhile, it may be satisfying that Cantor ran herd on this type of nonsense in his own party—until you reflect that, if he (and other people in the party) was sincerely bothered by it, he still waited years to act and in the interval shared a table with a man who considered him hell-bound.

On 60 Minutes in January, Cantor shrugged off the question if he’d ever felt any awkardness with his colleagues. “I’m sure there were times I was very aware of not being like others,” he said. When Lesley Stahl pressed the matter, asking point-blank whether he’d been uncomfortable, Cantor smiled and protested, “Naw.” If the Manzullo story is true, than why not?