House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave what was billed as a major policy speech today at the American Enterprise Institute. The policy specifics in the approximately 4,600-word speech amounted to pretty thin gruel. Instead, the speech was almost entirely about repositioning Cantor and the Republican Party politically. And that may make it the most important Republican policy speech in quite a while.
First, the tone. Who was this mild-mannered middle-of-the-roader? Cantor's icy partisanship melted away in a sea of warm bromides about the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and the Statue of Liberty. Aside from some requisite signaling to the right -- "There is no greater moral imperative than to reduce the mountain of debt" -- Cantor was a model of conciliation, offering hope that the two parties can find "within us the ability to set differences aside."
To the untrained ear, setting differences aside sounds almost like (gulp) compromise. Cantor made the reference explicit when he called for a more systematic and rational approach to the federal government's 47 different job programs. "We can fix this, and we should be able to muster bipartisan support to do so," Cantor said.
Amid plenty of boilerplate on the American Dream, Cantor called for more comp- and flex-time for private sector workers and cited a San Francisco Public Schools program -- yes, the San Francisco where Nancy Pelosi lives -- as a model funding mechanism.
Much of the policy menu was small potatoes, so why does it matter? Because Republicans can't change their policies until they change their politics, which are so heavily-weighted to the right that it's going to take some real muscling to move them toward the center.
Amplifying the new Republican demeanor, Cantor's speech took place on the same afternoon that a bipartisan group of House members introduced a gun trafficking bill sufficiently appealing to the gun control lobby that it was promptly endorsed by the Violence Policy Center. Just let those words run through your brain one more time: "House." "Bipartisan." "Gun trafficking."
Will the leopard truly change his spots? It might still be too soon to tell. But the elephant was looking pretty light on his feet today.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)