[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/04/intv.cantor.art.jpg caption= "Rep. Eric Cantor says the Republican Party needs to be more inclusive."]
Republican leaders have launched a new effort in hopes of taking back some of the support they lost in the last election. GOP numbers are dwindling on Capitol Hill and former Florida governor and brother to the former president, Jeb Bush says he doesn't like what he's seeing.
“From the conservative side, it's time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit, to not be nostalgic about the past… But what I've seen in the last few years is really troubling.”
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is on the Council for a New America, the new group that hopes to remake the Republican Party. He spoke to John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Monday.
John Roberts: Let's just take a look at how Republican fortunes have changed since 1995 when the Contract with America swept you to power. In 1995, you had 230 seats in the House, now you've got 178. You had 52 Senate seats, now 40. That's a pretty serious erosion. What happened?
Eric Cantor: Well, John, clearly we've had some setbacks, no question about it. Could we have done better in many areas? Absolutely. And that's why we've launched the National Council for a New America. And as Governor Bush… said, it is very important at this point that we go back out across the country; bring in as many people as possible to begin a conversation about the direction of this country. And the National Council for a New America is meant to be a forum for folks to gather, to come to discuss the issues confronting them in their communities and frankly to rally around the principles that we know have made this country great, which are liberty, opportunity and the devotion to the individual and free markets.
Roberts: Governor Bush also said you've got to give up nostalgia for the heyday of the Reagan era. Any time you go to these Republican conventions, it’s all about Ronald Reagan. Every candidate who runs for president wants to be Ronald Reagan. How are you going to give that up?
Cantor: I don’t think it’s giving up Ronald Reagan. The brilliance of Ronald Reagan’s leadership was his ability to identify the challenges that really were impacting people's lives back in the day that he was elected in 1980. We've got a similar challenge today. We're 25 years later. The same issues that may have resonated then may not be the issues that are resonating today but it is the principles around which Ronald Reagan formed his solutions that are still alive and well. Again, those principles of limited government, free markets, faith in the individual, faith in God, those are the things that have made this country great.
Roberts: During your meeting over the weekend, you didn't talk at all about abortion, gay marriage or immigration. Those are three big Republican social issues. There were Republicans and conservatives who were protesting outside the pizza parlor where you held this meeting. Why were those issues left off the table?
Cantor: Listen, the National Council for a New America is meant to be a wide-open policy debate. There is no exclusion about what we'll talk about, who can be involved. Again, this is about going back out to the people of this country…
Roberts: Yet, you shied away from those particular issues. I'm wondering why?
Cantor: Well, John, again, this was a free-flowing conversation. The traditional family values are a part of everything we do. The value system that we hold, raising our children, educating our children, delivering health care, these issues permeate everything. So there is absolutely no intention to veer away from discussion of any of that. Again, this is trying to go back out to the people and say, look, what's going on in Washington right now is not reflective of the mainstream of this country. Let's take this country back. Let's make sure that the direction that we are headed is one that meets the expectations of the American people and is not imposed on them by a special interest lobby that seems to have a lot of momentum in D.C.
Roberts: At the same time, you're making that argument though, some former Republicans are making the argument that hey, the problem is not so much Washington, the problem is the Republican Party. Arlen Specter who was a Republican for 29 years says you clearly lost your center. And of course we know that Senator Olympia Snowe said being a moderate Republican sometimes feels like being a cast member of "Survivor," you’re presented with multiple challenges, you often get the distinct feeling you're no longer welcome in the tribe. Has the party moved too far to the right? It's not the big tent of Ronald Reagan anymore?
Cantor: First of all, let's just call Senator Specter’s decision what it is. It is what he admitted it being when he announced he was switching parties. It was for political survival. And obviously he felt…
Roberts: But again, Olympia Snowe says you've moved too far to the right, you're not tolerant of moderates. Even Lindsey Graham said the same thing, so it's not just about Arlen Specter.
Cantor: John, let me tell you something else. There's no question that the Republican Party needs to be more inclusive at this point. We shouldn't be an exclusive small bunch satisfied with the minority because what we want to be able to do is put back in place those principles that the party was built on and what this country was built on. Look, in the Northeast, in New England, we've certainly taken our licks and we have got to go back out to the people and talk about the things that are facing them, come up with the solutions, talk about the solutions we’ve got. That economy in many parts of the northeast, upper Midwest, manufacturing bases eroding, we’ve got solutions. We’ve got the ability to talk to people, to bring them in to discuss the future. But there's no - there's no sense in saying that somehow the Republican Party and our principles cannot work for people. We know they can. That's why we've started the National Council for a New America.