The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Eric Cantor

Former House majority leader

Eric Cantor is a former Virginia congressman who served as GOP minority whip, and then majority leader, until his resignation from the House in 2014. Once considered an heir apparent to former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cantor was a key architect of the strategy that helped Republicans win back the House in 2010.

During his time in Congress, Cantor sparred with the Obama administration on everything from fiscal stimulus and health care reform, to entitlements and tax policy. These clashes would endear him to many Tea Party Republicans, but his stance on immigration reform would ultimately doom him against political upstart Dave Brat in Virginia's 2014 GOP primary. Cantor resigned after the loss.

Reflecting on the political dysfunction that came to dominate the Obama years, Cantor says "we have now spent the last seven years stuck in a rut." There is "equal opportunity for blame," he says in the following interview. "On the president's side, he was going to defend everything he did, and on the Republican side, we were going to try and tear it down."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on May 6, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Take us back to 2009. Obama comes in. What do you see your role as at that point?

Well, first of all, it was an extraordinary election. I mean, regardless of his party, the fact that our country elected a black president is just, it was huge in significance, no question. After all our country had been through with racial strife and the emergence of the civil rights struggle, to see that occur was just a very, very impactful event, I think, in the lives of not only of all Americans, but around the world.

... One of the memories I have was of that inaugural day and sitting on the West Front of the Capitol in one of those very chilly days in January, but looking out. I had this wonderful seat right on the rail but could see the swearing in of the new president. But I looked out, never forget, from the West Front of the Capitol all the way down to the [Washington] Monument. I think it's about a mile, and all you could see were people, a sea of people. I think they'd estimated the crowd over a million at that day.

... It was such a historic event. It was being part of history. Probably most people knew that in some way, but not really what it all meant, and I think testament to just the gravity of what was going on in electing somebody like Barack Obama.

A couple days before then, the president-elect had called the Republicans, John Boehner and me into a meeting with along with the Democratic leadership. It occurred over on the Senate side of the Capitol. This is, again, a couple days before that scene at the inaugural. And [he] said, "I really am here because I was serious in my campaign rhetoric and wanted to let you know I want to work with you to change the way things were done in this town," and he emphasized transparency and trying to sort of get beneath all those things that were swirling around and try and get some work done.

In that meeting he came up to John Boehner and me and specifically said to the two of us, he says: "I do want to work with you. You'll come meet with me once I'm sworn in," because obviously at the time, the administration was working on the so-called stimulus bill, because here we were in January shortly after the market collapse, near-collapse of our financial system in '08, and he said, "I want your input."

A couple weeks then transpired after the inaugural, and at-the-time Leader Boehner and I were invited to come to the White House. I took the president at his word and said to John Boehner, I said, "Look, let's go in there, and I'm going to work up a white paper"--and he was fine with that--"with some ideas about what we think should be in a so-called stimulus bill."

The temptation for Republicans is, we want to get rid of the capital gains tax, because we think that that spurs investment and we can lower the marginal rates. We can do all kinds of things. But instead of sort of going in that direction, we knew what we were dealing with. We knew that the newly Democratic elected president was not going to go for those kind of things. We were boxed in. It was a supermajority in the Senate and certainly a large majority of Democrats in the House.

So instead, when John Boehner and I went to that meeting that day at the White House, I had a white paper that had about five items on it. It was fairly straightforward, focused on growth, focused on trying to reinvigorate the economy. I remember one of the items had to do with small businesses, as we know the backbone of the American economy. We need to allow small-business people to have some advantage, some incentive to invest. So there was a small-business tax credit.

I think we also lowered the lowest marginal tax bracket from 10 percent to 5 percent. One of the other things in there was offering a homebuyer tax credit to try and revive the housing industry, [which] as you know had taken such a hit.

All these were listed. There were only about five of them. The meeting was in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. So John Boehner and I go in there along with the Democratic leaders, the Republican leaders from the Senate. The president had all his economic team there. I remember I asked the president, with all due respect, could I distribute a white paper that I had come up with at his request, because he said, "Bring us your ideas." And I said, "Mr. President, I wouldn't be so bold to even ask for any discussion; I just wanted to distribute this as reflecting what we believe should be in the bill."

And I'll never forget what the president said. He looked at it, and he said, "Well, I don't want to get into all this now." But he took a look at it, and he says, "Well, there's nothing crazy in here." So I took that as a really good sign. I think it did match my and John Boehner's sense that we didn't want to go too far, but we were serious in wanting to work with the president and his team.

That was the natural inclination that I saw from the president. I was very heartened by that, that maybe we could have a role in the makeup of the stimulus bill.

Wasn't this the story, though, where there was a reaction against it to some extent by saying, "I understand you've got some points of view here, but we won the election"?

That was a later meeting, but that was all in the series of those couple of weeks in January, getting ready for the stimulus bill to be proposed by the White House to the Congress. We ended this meeting, though, thinking that at least they know where we are, at least we put the best foot forward, that we do want to work, and we're not going to hold fast to the ultimate positions that we conservatives would want to take, which again was tax reform, lowering or getting rid of capital gains taxes and the rest.

The discussion then led to a subsequent meeting at the White House, and we got down to some of the finer points. One of the discussions surrounded the nature of the incentives for people in small businesses, and it had to do with whether we were going to see a refund to all taxpayers, basically the federal government sending every taxpayer a check, or somehow more targeted toward small businesses to get the investment going again, the former being what the president wanted to do and the latter being what we wanted to do.

We had an exchange, the president and I, and the president said, "Look, Eric, let me just tell you right up front: the elections have consequences, and I won, so we're going to do it my way."

I think that that was an indication to me that this was going to be a one-way street. We really weren't going to be engaged in this mutual discussion here of a collaborative approach to solving problems.

So what about the promise of killing of partisanship, fixing that in Washington? What was your impression then from that point on? Did you just not believe it?

At that point I had begun to have great doubts as to the commitment to be collaborative, cooperative and work together across partisan lines.

Why? What was it about him?

I think what happened, certainly after that very definitive statement--and it was widely reported after that--we really didn't hear anything from the White House. When the bill itself was unveiled, the president and his team would point to provisions in the bill and say, "Well, Republicans liked this; these are policies that they've supported in the past, so it's a bipartisan bill." Well, again, for the president and his team to go in and assume that Republicans are going to support this because these provisions may have come up in some prior form was in direct contradiction to what we said that we wanted. And with our putting the best foot forward, there was no reciprocity here.

At that point we certainly got the message that either [Nancy] Pelosi and the Democrats on the Hill and weighed in, or someone else in the White House had gotten to the president, and they had decided, you know what, we don't really need to work with Republicans, because we have super majorities on the Hill, and that's obviously when they controlled everything. From that point forward, we saw a very downward tilt toward the possibility of bipartisanship. That was very early on. That was in January and February of '09.

Now, they have a very different point of view. They point to that first meeting up on Capitol Hill about the stimulus where the president comes up, and there's a meeting with you guys, and they came out of it unhappy. Take us into that meeting. That was really the time when the caucus really got to meet him for the first time. He was there to sell the stimulus bill. What was happening in that room? What was the attitude?

That's a separate meeting. That's way beyond the first meeting in the Capitol prior to his inaugural.

This is after the inaugural.

That was subsequent to all the meetings that John Boehner and I had attended at the White House. So this was after the release of the stimulus bill itself, just before the bill was going to be brought up for a vote on the floor.

This was actually the 27th of January.

Right. This was just prior to when the Democrats were going to bring up the bill on the floor. The president had released the bill. The bill, again, did not have any of the provisions that we had enumerated on this white paper, five succinct points. And again, I want to stress, we really tried to make it so that these were not outlandish--in the minds of a Democrat--things that we could accomplish. And in fact, to that point, the president in his first response when he glanced at the paper several weeks before said, "You know, there's nothing crazy in here."

Again, I think his initial reaction was, "Hey, probably we can work with you." But something happened in the interim, and then we were unable to see anything in this new bill that reflected that. So at that point, we said: "You know what? They have summarily decided that we're not going to be a part of this, so we're going to oppose the bill."

So that meeting was not a very happy meeting.

No, because at that point, the president--I think I prior said that we're not going to support the bill. And the president says, "Well, they're just determined to politically defeat me," which was clearly out of context. It was not reflective at all of the kind of discussions that we had had and frankly [of] the hopes that were built up on our part, because the president had indicated he wanted to work with us, and even reacted initially in a positive way.

The story that they tell that was out in the press a lot is on Inauguration night, a bunch of leaders from the Republican Party, including yourself, go to a dinner at the Caucus Room, and there is a plan that is made at that point basically to obstruct anything the president wants to do. The idea is this is the best way to make sure that he's a one-term president. Give me your point of view.

... That is so blown out of proportion and was just, I believe, reporters misinterpreting what was going on. When an inaugural takes place, there's a lot of social activities in this town. There's a lot of dinners. I recall going by that dinner with my wife just for about 15 or 20 minutes. There were a lot of people around the table, and there was a discussion being hosted by Frank Luntz, the pollster. I read reports the same about that meeting. It was not a part of the discussion that I actually partook of, because I was just there in a brief way, because there were so many things going on that night.

I know personally it's just not the kind of person that I am. I really felt like there was a lot of hurt, and we had only begun to see the ramifications of the near-collapse in the financial markets. We'd only begun to see the real hurt in terms of consequences for people losing their jobs and the difficulties that were about to really be experienced.

First comes first. You have an obligation here to serve, and again, reflected in my desire to, and John Boehner's, to work with this president, in the subsequent weeks, I just think that was mischaracterized.

I'm going to jump around, because we have a lot of territory to cover. The summer of 2009, the Tea Party summer, you see what's going on in the town meetings, the anger that's out there. What did that anger represent to you? How did the White House view it and possibly miss some signals? What was going on?

First of all, remember, the stimulus was just the beginning, because that year after that, [then-Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi tried to push across her cap and trade legislation. The president then moved his health care bill. And intervening--remember, Sen. [Ted] Kennedy (D-Mass.) passed away, and then [Republican] Scott Brown was elected, so it messed up their strategy on Obamacare. And then Dodd-Frank came after that.

I think there was just a reaction on the part of the public. And at the time [of] the Tea Party summer, the Tea Party--"Taxed Enough Already," which is what the acronym stands for – wasn't just Republicans. There were a lot of Independents that came into the mix, if you will, to the town squares and the town halls across the country to say, "Hey, wait a minute, this is not what I thought, and it had gone too far."

I think the reaction viscerally was in response to the health care bill, because health care being something so personal to every family, and therefore people who had never been involved in politics before all of a sudden were now speaking up: "Hey, wait a minute, I didn't elect this president; I didn't think that Washington should take my health care from me."

That's really what was at the root of the initial uprising, if you will, of the Tea Party. I do think that the Democrats and the president had a much different view than what the public thought about health care reform.

I'll never forget a meeting I had in my office with one of the individuals who was charged by the president to oversee the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and the health care bill through the House and the Senate. Her name was Nancy-Ann DeParle--very, very knowledgeable person; had had private-sector experience in health care. At the time, again, I was whip. She had come to my office back in June of 2009 and asked if the Republicans would work with her and the president and the administration on this health care bill.

She indicated that what their position was is they wanted a government option. They wanted the government to be a provider in competition with the private sector. To me, that just didn't make any sense, because you have the government actually as a regulator, but also was going to be a competitor. And I said if that is the price of collaboration, I mean, it's basically saying bipartisanship means my way and nothing else; I said we can't work like that. If you'd listen to us, I do believe that we have some ability to come together. But I can tell you right now, the government option to be a competitor and a regulator isn't something that's going to make sense to many Republicans.

But they go a different way, but it does pass. And it does pass with--

Strictly partisan.

Strictly partisan. So what did that tell you? What was the message sent? Where were we at that point?

If you recall the summer of 2009, there were a lot of angry citizens across America, and I think it was much in response to this health care bill. They saw that the Democratic majority, along with the president, were going in a direction where I don't think people thought they would go. If you recall, the situation in this country today even is, outside of the government programs of Medicare and Medicaid, most people get their insurance through their employer. And even though people are upset about co-pays and premiums, they, back then, as they do now, they liked what they have.

When Obamacare comes along and says, "You're not going to be able to keep that," despite the president's saying that if you liked your health care you can keep it, I think all this was people beginning to see that they should fear this health care reform bill that was working the way through Congress, because it was such a personal thing for so many people.

Coming up to the midterm elections, the year before, you guys, the "Young Guns" was formed, and you were very involved in the recruiting of the 2010 recruits. Did you guys understand the mood that was out there, that "define against Washington" within the ranks of the Republicans? Did you guys, because of that, feel that: "We've got an opportunity here. The House can go majority Republican"? How did that define who you were looking for and what the goals were?

I think it really started with a dose of contrition more than anything else. [Current House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and I at the time were sensing that there was a lot of residue from Republicans losing the majority in 2006. And I think if you read the book that we wrote together, it began by some contrition on our part, basically saying, you know, Republicans lost their way when we were in the majority; we spent too much. One of the things that was so impactful to me is in that election in 2006, there were a handful if not more people under investigation or indictment in our party, which doesn't speak too well about what we stand for and our values.

I was saying, look, number one, we are not that party. We are a party that is premised and based on opportunity, and we need an ethical government. We need a government of laws, not of rules. We need some certainty. We need people who want to come, not to be a part of divvying out the goodies here in Washington, but people who are here intent on reforming our government, so that it is a government that serves the people, not the other way around with people serving the government.

... We said, yeah, we want to go to do this, want to put some of this into action. The way you do that is you recruit like-minded people to come and join you so you can succeed.

And the pool that seemed to fit that definition were pretty much Tea Party folk?

I'm not so sure that we cognizantly said, "Hey, let's go get Tea Party folks." I think that what was going on at the time was there was a lot of pushback to this overreach on the part of the Obama administration in terms of their legislative agenda and their regulatory activity, so it was sort of coincidental with what was going on out there across the country. Then there were a lot of younger people and people who had not ever served before saying, people in small business, people in a variety of different backgrounds saying: "I want to be a part of that, too. We have got to take our government back, our country back, and set it on the right course and not allow such an overreach in growth in terms of the influence of government in our lives."

I think that was the consistent theme that actually had some overlap with what was going on out there in the summer of 2009 and into 2010.

You win, and you win the majority. Do you see this as a mandate to reject Obama's agenda?

No. What I saw [regarding] the Republican election in 2010 thrusting us into the majority when John Boehner became speaker and I became leader, I saw that as a move on the part of the electorate to say: "Hey, hey, hey, wait a minute. Obama's gone too far." He had too much. He totally disregarded half the country, if not more, when he did things like health care reform or financial regulatory reform strictly on a partisan basis. These things are too big to be done with just one party, so we need a check and balance on this president, and that's why the Republicans, I believe, we were elected into majority in 2010.

At that point, what's the strategy? There's talk of using the debt ceiling for leverage as a way to get dramatic spending cuts. What's the thinking? Why do you go in that direction?

Well, first of all, remember that we did two really significant rules changes. One was to get rid of earmarks, because earmarks represented that culture that we wanted to move away from. It was not about muscle in this town; it was about merit. If you had a good idea, that ought to be able to sustain itself on its own and not just because you had a senior politician able to elbow somebody else out to get goodies to bring back home. And it was the taxpayer; it wasn't your money. So that was one.

The second was we decided that the debt in this country had increased to a point that we needed to do something about it, and we wanted to separate out a vote separately on increasing the statutory debt ceiling, because the law in this country says that there is a certain amount of indebtedness that the federal government can incur, and beyond that, you need to change the law to allow for it.

In the past [when] this vote was taken, the Democrats, Republicans would do it together, and it was part of a larger rules package. We said: "You know what? This is important enough that if we're going to go and continue to mortgage the future of our country and our kids, we'd better be very deliberative about this." We wanted to try and stop all the increasing indebtedness.

What happened at that point is, if you look back, it's almost counterintuitive to think that folks who were elected coincidental with the rise of the Tea Party, who were very focused on fiscal discipline, would enjoy necessarily a vote having to do with increasing the debt ceiling.

It became a very, very difficult vote. It's still a difficult vote, to this day. One of the things that John Boehner said early on was, if we're going to raise the debt ceiling, we should be finding commensurate dollars of savings to the dollars that we're increasing the indebtedness of the country. And that's what then began to set up the framework for so many discussions and contentiousness thereafter.

But it's seen as a tool for leverage, to be able to force the Obama folk to understand your agenda.

It certainly was a point at which we felt that we could accomplish some savings and actually begin the process of reducing the size of government by achieving cost savings and stop the rapid growth and increase in spending.

April of 2011, Paul Ryan is invited to that Obama speech at George Washington University, and his budget, the Republican budget that he had written, was talked about in pretty derogatory terms by the president. They said later that they didn't know Paul was there. But Paul's not happy. He comes back and talks to you. What does he say about that?

I don't recall necessarily what the conversations exactly were.

... But you know, after that speech at GW, the president indicated that he wanted the vice president to set up a commission essentially to begin to work toward how we were going to work together to solve this problem of the debt ceiling. ... The speaker [John Boehner] asked me to sit on the Biden Commission, and I spent seven weeks, probably three times a week, two and a half hours each time, with the vice president, Secretary of the Treasury at the time Tim Geithner, with [White House Budget Director] Jack Lew, Gene Sperling of the National Economics Council, [Senate Minority Whip] Jon Kyl and me on the Republican side, and there were some Democratic individuals from the House and the Senate.

... We spent a long time with each other, and I actually developed a respect for Vice President Biden and speak to him regularly to this day, because I saw he was earnest in wanting to try and make some progress.

... Those meetings of the Biden Commission were premised on this notion, and Joe Biden and I got together beforehand and during to keep the framework in place, and basically say, look, we're not going to focus on where we disagree; we're going to try and find common ground. The vice president knew that he was not going to force Republicans into raising taxes, and I knew that we couldn't force the vice president or his side into agreeing to repeal Obamacare. I mean, those things were just not going to happen.

Within that construct, we were focusing on where the savings were. ... We had worked our way toward that goal of 2.4 trillion, because that was the amount of the request that the administration was going to make in terms of raising the debt ceiling and consistent with Speaker Boehner at the time's sort of rule [that] dollar for dollar, we needed to get to $2.4 trillion.

There was things on this list--there was some Medicare/Medigap reform; there was federal retirement reform. There [were] all kinds of things on the edges that we could accomplish over and above what you call low-hanging fruit, the discretionary spending cuts that honestly have now come into play and have been passed since that commission. I think if you ask anybody in this administration, the progress that's been made since then through today, 2016, emanated from those meetings.

But during one of those meetings, the other interesting aspect of what was going on is Biden tells you, Eric, something about the secret meetings that are going on between Boehner and Obama. What was your reaction when you heard that?

I remember that discussion with the vice president. (Laughs.) The vice president did indicate that there was ongoing discussions between John Boehner and the president, and at the time, the day or two days after the vice president indicated that to me, I was told also that Nancy Pelosi was going to the White House with [then-House Majority Leader] Steny Hoyer and the Democratic Caucus, because they were furious at what they were hearing in terms of the subject matter of the discussion of the Biden Commission, because we actually were talking about everything.

Joe Biden had always opened up each meeting and said, "Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon." We were just trying to find where we had common ground. But nonetheless, Pelosi had gotten so upset at what she'd heard, she was going to go to the White House to try and blow up the Biden talks. I then heard from the vice president that John Boehner was meeting with the president. I said: "You know what? Wait a minute. This has now gone beyond what I thought this was going to be. We'll let the president and John Boehner deal with this from this point going forward."

And then you find out that Boehner is talking about the possibility of tax revenue being on the table.

At that point the Biden Commission ended. I called the vice president before I made any public announcement, because this is the rapport that frankly we'd developed, and I said: "Look, I just can't do this any further. I'm going to make a statement that we've just about reached the end point." And we did have a work product. That's the amazing thing; we had a significant work product that's lived to this day and has come into fruition.

But yes, there was a deal that the president and John Boehner were being worked on.

So what did you say to the speaker when you found out about that?

After I called Joe Biden and told him I'm going to make a statement, I called John Boehner, and I said: "I'm not going to participate in the Biden discussions anymore, because I hear that there's now discussions ongoing between you and the president. I think it rightfully belongs with you two, if that's what you want," I said, "but we do have work product that we produced, and I think it could be helpful toward any kind of deal that we can strike with the White House so that we can meet your goal, Mr. Speaker, of dollar-for-dollar cuts to increases in the debt limit."

But you're not happy about this idea that tax revenues are all of a sudden on the table, are you?

No.

What do you tell Boehner?

This unfortunately was something that was never accurately reported, because for some reason, the press or just the general message out there was either muddled or it was unclear. Here's what I think the difficulty was around all those discussions, because the discussions between the speaker and the president then fell apart. At that point, the speaker asked me to go with him into the Oval Office with the president to see if we could salvage something, because we were getting close to August 2, 2011, and that day's very impressed upon my my brain ever since then. (Laughs.) He asked me to go back in to see what we could do.

But here was the difficulty. You had Republicans on the Hill who had always said if we could get a transformative deal on the budget--which meant how do you address the trajectory of the debt? If you get a transformative deal, which meant generations, 75 years out, the Republicans would have agreed to revenue increases, tax increases. But the problem was, the notion of that deal was not the big deal that the president and John Boehner were talking about, and that was the disconnect that was never reported properly.

And you made that clear when you were in those meetings.

Right. So the Republicans' deal was grounded in the Ryan budget. It was to transform or transition the Medicare program from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program, essentially allowing beneficiaries under Medicare to assume some of the risk. And that was and still to this day is the only plan that's been demonstrated to actually achieve the kind of cost savings needed to balance the budget.

At that point, I think most Republicans say, "We would say yes to revenue increases if we knew that it was going to be spent to pay off the deficit, not to spend more money, and to pay off the debt." Well, the president and John Boehner were working on a different kind of deal that was always characterized as the "big deal." But that deal was premised on three big reforms.

One was the increase in the age requirement for eligibility in Medicare. Two, it was increasing the inflator adjustment, the CPI index [consumer price index], using another index, so that the benefits under Medicare and Social Security would not increase so quickly. And thirdly is to means test--basically deny those with making more money a benefit or increase their premiums. Again, some of these things have been subsequently put into law.

And tax revenues, right?

And tax revenues. So two very different deals. One was going to buy you about 15 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office and OMB [Office of Management and Budget]. That was the deal that Speaker Boehner and President Obama were working on, and that was the deal that the Republican Congress would never go along with raising taxes if that's all you were getting.

The deal that the Republican Conference wanted in the Ryan budget would have given you 75 years. That's where people on my side of the aisle would say, "Yes, if we could get that done, we'll do some tax revenues."

But again, those two were always separate. The president was never going to take our deal, the transformative deal. The Republican Conference was never going to take this deal that the president wanted to strike. But that's not to say that there wasn't a huge lane of items in the middle that came out of the Biden discussion that we could have done, and done quickly.

But again, that was not what the president wanted, so things just really fell apart. Then what resulted was the sequester.

Before that, though, I'll take it by steps. Number one, the White House comes out and says that you're a destructive force within the meetings, and all of a sudden the media starts playing you up, and folks up on Capitol Hill are screaming and shouting about you being an obstructionist. What are you thinking when you're all of a sudden being painted as ... bringing us close to the edge because of how important this all was? What is your thinking? How did that happen?

I think people who were reporting were just not doing their work, because the support for what was being discussed at the White House was not there in the Republican Conference. There was no way that a majority of Republicans were going to support what the president was talking about. It just wasn't going to happen.

That sort of big, very significant element was just left out of the stories. And I knew that. I knew that we were in touch with what reality was. And the reality was, you could make a lot of incremental progress. We really could. And again, I think history has borne out that the incremental progress--trillions, if you can imagine, that's the incremental progress--has been made since. But it was absolutely rejected by the president at that time.

Then there's a Sunday meeting where the president comes back from church and you all sit down, separately, you and Boehner and the president, I guess, alone, and you agree to $800 billion in revenues, plus more than that in cuts and reforms are on the table. And the president looks to his people--he agrees with you, and he comes out of the room, and he looks to his people [and] says, "I want this done." Take us into that room.

First of all, inaccurate reporting, again. There was never any final deal. Never any final deal. And that Sunday the speaker had called me earlier and said, "I want you to go to the White House with me; we're going to meet with the president." And we went to the White House, and first we met with Bill Daley, the chief of staff, and some of the other economic and finance folks at the White House. Then the president comes back from church, and John Boehner and I go into the Oval Office, just the three of us.

And it was never that there was any final deal. We still had things to work out. But there was a discussion. I remember vividly that I told the president, "Our conference, the members of our conference are not where you are." This goes back to the very different sense and definition of what this Grand Bargain is. Republicans felt the Grand Bargain was the Ryan budget, the transition from defined benefit to defined contribution in Medicare. The president thought that the Grand Bargain was this trade-off between raising age requirements, means testing and CPI adjustment, and raising taxes. Two very different things.

I conveyed that to the president while John Boehner was sitting there. After that, the president came back with yet even more tax revenue offers to John Boehner.

Well, that comes after the Gang of Six report, which comes in days after. Then he goes out and does the press conference. And then he goes [and] talks to you guys. What the president is asking for now is $400 billion more in revenue, and Boehner's considering it, is what the reporting is. And Boehner's considering it. You go to him and you say--you give me your reaction. But the way it's been defined by [Bob] Woodward and other reporters is that you thought that you had a runaway speaker.

Well, listen, what I recall at that time is I sat down and I met with Paul Ryan, [Rep.] Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), some others, and I said: "Here's what's going on. The president has come back now with even more revenues. ... I know that my sense, being the whip, trying to be close to where the members are, they're not going to be for tax increases if we can't get a transformative deal." I was totally supported in that conversation, Jeb Hensarling, Paul Ryan and others at the time.

And so, yes, I went to the speaker, and I said: "Look, we can't do this. We can't do it at the increased revenue number. We can't do it at the lower revenue number. We can't have tax increases if we're not getting a transformative deal, so let's try and focus on some of the things that the Biden Commission reported, because we can actually support those things."

Just to be clear, in the White House, in the Oval Office, when the three of you were in that room, there wasn't a handshake deal?

No, sir. No, sir. How could there have been a handshake deal if the president then subsequently comes back with $400 billion of additional revenues?

And the president doesn't come out of the room and say, "I want to get this done"?

No! No! Maybe in his mind. Maybe he had that conversation with his people. But again, I think testament to the fact that there was not a deal, how is it that the president comes back and raises the ante again? Clearly there wasn't a deal in his mind, or if there was, he broke the deal and went back and raised some more.

At this point, it's a mess. There's no agreement. Do you guys all put your hopes in breaking the deadlock by winning the 2012 election? Is it all at this point on to the 2012 election?

... I don't remember whether we were all just basically saying, "Well, we've just got to go fight the next election." But clearly there was not a willingness on the part of this president to work with us. The deal was always the definition that he had of a Grand Bargain that included tax increases, and not ever any nod toward a kind of transformational deal that we wanted. If that was the case, anybody who's realistic in terms of trying to strike compromise would say, "Hey, let's go to where we have things in common and set aside where we have differences." Never have we reached that point, still today, with this president.

Take me inside the room on the decision on the government shutdown. Who's pushing for it, and why does the leadership seem to agree? And did you think Obama would in fact back off his signature legislation?

Wow. I mean, that was really one of the darkest days, you know, is when we had to go through that government shutdown. I think it was a foolhearted effort, and it was something that, as we know, Sen. [Ted] Cruz (R-Texas) was very much a part of and central to. He had convinced enough members of the House Republican Conference to go along with him.

What we in leadership had done is we had created this series of votes that would not have forced any Republican to vote for funding of Obamacare, but at the same time to have two separate votes and then to go to the Senate for it to deal with the problem, because people were very, very reluctant on the Republican side of the aisle to get tied with funding of Obamacare.

But the false notion that this shutdown would have gotten rid of Obamacare is what never sat well with me. It was inaccurate, and it was frankly a falsehood; it was a lie. You couldn't stop Obamacare by saying that you weren't going to vote for this funding. It was an entitlement in the law. And the only way you were going to get rid of Obamacare was to have the president agree to veto--I mean, to actually sign a repeal legislation. That wasn't going to happen. You were not going to see a Democratic Senate pass a repeal of Obamacare and then the president sign a repeal.

But somehow or another, the narrative started to develop that if Republicans didn't do this, we weren't fighting hard enough; that somehow or another the Republicans could do this, shut down the government, frankly go past the date [that] Treasury said we were going to be in default and win, because we could beat the president into submission to see it our way. That's like saying that you're going to get Republicans to all of a sudden say, "OK, Mr. President, you're right; we agree with you on taxes; we need to raise them, not cut them." That's just not going to happen. It was never a very realistic playbook, if you will. It was going to end in disaster. There was never an exit plan.

In the end, it all came down to John Boehner and I, and another 26 people voted to reopen the government to make sure we didn't go past the date Treasury said we were going to be in default.

The story of Boehner agreeing to it because he wanted to teach a lesson to the Tea Party conservatives who were the ones driving this?

No. The reality was, you have a choice. You could buck the conference or Republicans and then be reliant upon Nancy Pelosi and essentially giving her reins to the floor. Now, that's not why we were elected as a majority, to allow Nancy Pelosi to dictate the terms of the legislative agenda in the House. So that was the choice, one or the other.

So what we did is we shut down. It's only the non-essential things that were shut down. But unfortunately, they included things like the VA [Veterans Affairs]. They included things like clinical trials for pediatric cancer patients. You know, these are things that when they're shut down, you're not helping anybody. And plus, when you don't even have a plausible plan that will succeed, it all made no sense in the world. But it was this trap that we had gotten into, but in the end knew very well that you couldn't play with fire and go past that date that Treasury said we were going to be in default.

After the shutdown, Boehner is interested in going back and looking at immigration. Why was that important? What was your view?

... My view was the public has lost its trust in the federal government to do its job on the border. In addition to that, 40 percent of those who are here illegally were here legally at some point through a visa or some kind of entrance policy and overstayed it. So we had a serious problem of enforcement, where the federal government wasn't doing its job. It was not doing its job at the border.

I felt very strongly we needed to regain the trust, and we needed to be able to demonstrate somehow that we were going to do that. I actually took a group of members to the border at the time in El Paso to see for myself, because I'd not been to the border, and heard a lot of the stories from the local law enforcement, as well as the federal law enforcement about how many crossings were being still successful in a very fenced border around El Paso and Juarez.

Eventually where I came down on this is we needed desperately to do something to beef up the border security. But I also took a position that I still think makes sense today. We have a lot of those who are here illegally that are minors, that are children, and they were brought here by their parents. I mean, whether they're two months old, two weeks old, 12 years old, they're minors. And they're here and in most instances don't know any other country as home, but yet some of the people are saying, on my side of the aisle, "We've just got to send them home." They don't have a home other than here.

In addition to that, we have a strong history in our country of never holding kids liable for their parents' illegal acts. The illegal act was the crossing illegally into this country. They, the minors, didn't have a choice, so why not at least start, incrementally--again, we're going back to what we have in common. The president, he wanted to do the DREAMers, and we actually did a bill and passed it on another piece of immigration, H-1B's, that we both agreed on. Why couldn't we just say let's agree on the kids first? Forget about this comprehensive stuff, because you're not going to get that through votewise on the House side. Plus, the American people don't have faith that the federal government will do its job, so let's start at least with the kids. Little by little, let's move down the field, incrementally, each week, each month, make some progress.

Again, that was my view. Later I think my view came back to haunt me, but I still think it was the right thing.

Well, lo and behold, June 2014, Washington is astounded. You lose your primary election. Where are you when you hear that you had lost the election?

When I heard for sure was when I was at the Westin Hotel in Richmond.

... I will say this: Much like what we're seeing today with Donald Trump and what's going on in the election, Virginia has open primaries. There's a reason in the South why there's open primaries, because there used to not be any Republicans in the South. So we have open primaries. On that day, the Democratic Party in the Seventh District of Virginia did not have a primary. They had already chosen their candidate by another means, and exit polls demonstrated that a third of the electorate in my primary--and we shattered records for it: 60-some-thousand people in my primary. Never before in the state at all had there been such a turnout in a primary. It indicated a third of the electorate were prior Democratic primary voters who were in the Republican primary to do one thing, and one thing only: elect anybody but me.

Now, it's not to say that my Republican totals weren't diminished, because they were. My Republican totals used to be I would get 70 percent of the vote, and I was down in the mid-50s. But I won a majority of Republicans. But it was also demonstrative of the fact that people were very, very angry. I was the leader; I was Washington. Whether I took the position on immigration like this that upset my side, because I have people on my side of the aisle that frankly think we ought to do nothing--I don't agree with that. I think we ought to make some progress on immigration, and I think we do it incrementally. So it made them upset. And my opponent seized upon that and said, "Cantor's for amnesty," right, which is totally not true. But he did that.

In the meantime, the president and all dispatched his political forces. One day during the primary, there were dual demonstrations going on in Capitol Square in Richmond. There were the pro-immigration and Obama immigration forces, and my opponent had gotten the anti-amnesty, anti-any immigration reform, and they were all dueling against each other. Guess who was caught in the middle? It was me!

That same day, ... I got a call from my wife, and she was petrified. There were 40 people in my front yard demonstrating, protesting against my position on the Obama administration bill. So here I was, the obstructionist as far as Obama and his team were concerned, but yet I was the pro-amnesty [candidate], allegedly, by my opponent and his crowd.

So it was this perfect storm. And to boot, you had at that point in time this wave of kids that were being brought up by the coyotes and others from Mexico that were crossing the border the week before my primary.

It really was a perfect storm. It was obviously not a pleasant experience. It's been sometime now, a lot of lessons learned. And you know, I sort of landed on my feet.

What are you thinking that night when you go up on that stage?

I'm an optimist, and I believe that things happen, and sometimes when they happen you don't really understand why, and the passage of time will help you begin to do that. I think that my experience has been true to that.

At the time, I said to my wife and my kids, I said: "Look, this has happened. We're going to be strong. We have each other. We have a wonderful future ahead of us. This is not the way we wanted it." You know, at the time, I had not ever really experienced personal setbacks, certainly not in my career. At the time, I had all my family; my parents were still alive. I've since lost my father. I've never had a loss, and it was a huge one in a very public way.

I remember telling my wife: "We're going to go up on that stage. You're not going to cry. You're not going to cry. This is not something that is at all that catastrophic, you know. We still have each other, our health, our kids, our family. We'll get through this."

A couple summation things here. Without fixing the rifts inside the GOP that exist at this point, will Washington be incapable of ever doing big things again?

I think we ought to go and take some lessons from how real life works. Big things--people always want to talk about big things. But you know how you get to big things? They're a combination of a lot of little things. I always say think about most Americans when they want to redo their house. They can't afford to go and redo the whole thing. They do their kitchen. Then they do a bathroom. Then they may do their basement. Then they may do their master bedroom. Then eventually you get it all done.

That's where we ought to start again, practice working together, week by week, month by month. If you practice like that, perhaps you can get these little things to amount to bigger things that you could do together. But we have now spent the last seven years stuck in a rut, going back to the president, his attitude from the very beginning on the stimulus bill, that then just transpired. Equal opportunity for blame. My side then overreacted as well. The mission became, on the president's side, he was going to defend everything he did, and on the Republican side, we were going to try and tear it down, versus saying: "Listen, we're going to disagree on some things. We're in opposite parties and believe in different things, but certainly as Americans we have a lot in common. What can we do?" That's what needs to happen. We need leaders in Washington who frankly are willing to risk their office, risk being criticized, but trying to do the right thing and move incrementally down the field every day, and at some point you've made a lot of progress and done big things.

The failure to achieve--is it due to the failure to achieve what you wanted to achieve, and did it lead to Donald Trump? Or is there another reason? What do you see as the reason why the party is having the problems it's having today and we end up with Donald Trump as the representative of the Republican Party?

... If you look at it politically, I think the reason why we are where we are is there's too many promises made that have never been delivered upon, that have been broken, you know, all these promises for these great big deals and these great big things that we're going to do, and you know going in they're not getting done. Just like the Grand Bargain! We Republicans knew the president wasn't going for the deal, because they said it would change the nature of the program, just like the president knew we weren't going for tax increases.

So if you keep selling it and keep saying it and not getting it done, then what do you expect people to do? Tax reform--we keep saying that. The president--he kept saying it; he's not saying it anymore. But we had a fundamental disagreement on major, broad tax reform because the president wanted to increase taxes.

If you keep saying it and you don't deliver, what do you think happens? You erode the trust of the people. And that's what's happened. They don't have faith in the government anymore, which I think is why Donald Trump has had the support he has, because he's an outsider, and he can say, "Don't blame me for that mess; I'm the one who can go in and fix it."

One story that is told, and I'd like to get your opinion on it, is the problems in the GOP, the problems in the party all started when you guys brought in the 87 freshmen, the Tea Party freshmen, people that were obstructionists, that wanted to bring government down, were happier if government didn't do anything. They wanted to close down the government. That brought into the belly of the GOP the beast that then got rid of Boehner, got rid of you, created Trump. What do you say to that?

I say there's equal opportunity for blame, because the premise of the notion that it's all the Republicans' fault would mean if the Republicans would just go along with what the Democrats want, [all could be resolved]. No. This should be a bipartisan situation in this town. There are two parties here. We should be able to work together. And I also look to the president for a lot of blame. He is the commander in chief. He has the biggest megaphone in the world. And if you look at his rhetoric throughout the last seven years, it's been very divisive. It's been about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. He's maligning those at the top of the ladder. He's saying to business, "You didn't really create it; government created it." He has not been a positive, optimistic force. And that's, I think, unfortunately the legacy that will attach to the Obama administration and his term. He had so much potential, going back to this historic election, the first black president of our country, so much ability and potential to bring us together, and it was just a missed opportunity.

Do the divisions in Washington that exist today mirror the divisions in the United States? Is this thing a much bigger thing, a problem that will take a very long time to heal?

... The next president has got to have the attitude that we can work together, taking the mind-set that we're going to disagree on some things, but let's stress where we can work together. And where is that? That is about opportunity. That is about making sure that America once again is about innovation. We're about creating jobs and opportunity. We are about investment. We are about every one of us, no matter which end of the ideological spectrum or the economic or social spectrum that you're on, we're all part of this great country. We ought to be working together. Stop with the divisive language. Stop with critical language [against] other people and puts them down. Bring us together! That's what I think it's going to take. It's about leadership. We've not seen it for a long time.

The 2012 election: Are you surprised that night? There's a lot of talk now about the Republican Party, the "autopsy" and what needs to be done to put it back on course. Just when you have the hopes of taking the White House, and then it doesn't happen, are you surprised, and what are the discussions about what needs to happen after that?

I don't know if there's any specific discussions that we have had. I've always been one who believes that our political party, the Republican Party, needs to be one of inclusion, not exclusion. The aftermath of the Romney defeat did reflect that too many millennials, minorities and others have rejected us at the polls because they sense that somehow we're not inclusive. ... And unless we show the American people that conservative principles actually help them in a real [way] and not just theory, we'll never get the majority confidence back.