Eric Cantor can’t have been expecting a warm reception when he came to speak at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Forum last Thursday. The House majority leader, who represents Virginia’s seventh congressional district, has consistently voted against abortion, gay marriage, union rights, affirmative action and gun control, but in favour of outlawing flag burning. So he must have been prepared for some hostile questions at the end of his address, vaguely entitled ‘We are a Nation at a Crossroads’. But before he even got inside the Kennedy School he was met by a crowd of around 500 students – from Tufts, Northeastern and Lesley as well as Harvard – protesting against House Republicans’ budget proposals.
Two weeks ago, President Obama proposed a five-year freeze on non-defence discretionary domestic spending. But that wasn’t enough for the Republicans, who voted last week for $61 billion in cuts to social and environmental programmes. They were doing it, they said, to reduce the deficit, though that hadn’t stopped them voting to extend Bush-era tax cuts which will add $407 billion to the deficit in 2012. Among the programmes to be slashed are those supporting family planning, international aid, pollution control, energy subsidies for old people on low incomes, national parks and community health centres.
The demonstrators at Harvard included seasoned activists alongside new protesters and first-time organisers. Some were there because they feel that the Democratic leadership, having compromised on tax cuts and keeping quiet about union-bashing, is not doing enough to counter the spread of Tea Party politics from Fox News and corporate-funded ‘grassroots’ rallies to the Capitol. Many others were simply outraged by the specifics of the budget proposals. The crowd included Students for Choice (‘No church, no state, women must decide their fate!’) and Harvard’s Global Health and Aids Coalition (‘We will not give up our fight! Healthcare is a human right!’). The biggest and loudest contingent was there in support of AmeriCorps, a programme that arranges for people to work on community projects in return for help with tuition fees or student debt. There were also large numbers of police, whose boredom turned to bemusement when some of the protesters – many wearing the stars and stripes, and holding banners proclaiming ‘I love public service’ and ‘Support teachers’ – broke into a chorus of ‘God Bless America’.
We were late getting from the protest to the JFK Forum and weren’t allowed in to hear Cantor’s speech; someone pointed out that this was a practical illustration of the difficulty of embracing both insider and outsider strategies. Friends in the audience kept us updated with text messages. Some students who started chanting about funding for global health programmes were immediately escorted out. Cantor was asked about gay rights, AmeriCorps, Planned Parenthood, and the fact that Goldman Sachs – not renowned as a fervent advocate of tax-and-spend policies – has released a report saying that the Republicans’ proposed cuts would slow American growth by up to 2 per cent: someone asked if the budget proposals should be taken as a sign that Cantor thinks the economy is growing too fast. He responded with a lot of talk about ‘tough choices’, though he avoided the phrase when replying to questions about Planned Parenthood.
As he was leaving, the protesters outside took up a new chant, a response to Republican rhetoric on big government: ‘Mr Cantor, we’re not waste.’ Most of them aren’t as angry as the Tea Party, yet – Harvard’s a long way from Wisconsin – but if they don’t get better answers soon, perhaps they will be.