Washington —The House GOP’s Young Guns — Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — hosted a town-hall event at American University on Monday night. While the purpose of the campus get-together was ostensibly to promote Young Guns, the trio’s 2010 campaign manifesto, it also served as an introduction of sorts: a meet-the-coeds moment for the rising stars of the new Republican majority. As Ryan said, “I don’t think of myself as that much older than you; I’m in the X-generation and you’re in the Y-generation.”
Ryan, it seemed, was the favorite of the young crowd — for good reason. In 1991, while still an undergraduate, he spent a semester at AU, taking credits while interning with the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. “It wasn’t too long ago that I was hanging around,” Ryan laughed, as he tried to recall his favorite neighborhood dive bars. “These are the bars you’ve probably never even heard of, because they’re already out of business.”
But it wasn’t all banter. The crowd, over 100 strong, peppered the three lawmakers with a barrage of questions, from who really runs their Twitter accounts — each admitted to having some help — to pressing issues like tax cuts, immigration, and health care. Perhaps, since it was the evening before a huddle between GOP leaders and President Obama at the White House, the GOP congressmen struck a notably bipartisan tone in their responses, urging the students to consider their party’s policy positions.
“Democrats are not our enemies, they are our adversaries; they are our adversaries in the battle of ideas,” Ryan remarked at the outset, as he outlined his fiscal concerns. “Our enemies are the people who fly our planes into buildings, who use roadside bombs against our soldiers. But in this battle of ideas, this is a very, very momentous time in this country. I mean, the future you are about to face when you graduate from here is going to be decided in the next few years. This is one of those sort-of pivotal times in this country, in our nation’s history, where the next few years will determine what America is going to be the 21st century.”
“We have a debt crisis coming in this country, there are no two ways about it,” Ryan continued, to nods in the audience. “The question is: Do we get ahead of it? Do we preempt it? Do we prevent that from swallowing us, like what’s happening in Europe?” If the country does not address the debt, he warned, the United States risks mirroring Old Europe, where “you turn on the TV and you see France, young people coming onto the streets, in their teens and their twenties, throwing Molotov cocktails” to protest governmental action on entitlements. “We want to have an opportunity society,” Ryan said.
Following Ryan’s impassioned words, Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, and father to two college students of his own, joked about being the graybeard of the group. “I know that many of you are facing final exams in the next couple weeks,” he said to groans. “Believe me, I get it,” he said, referencing his own children’s reluctance to return to the quad following Thanksgiving weekend. Still, he applauded the group for showing some initiative, even as tests loom. “I guess you could have taken the route that Paul did, hanging out at the bars tonight, but we’re excited that you are here.”
Cantor made clear that he saw the midterms “not necessarily as an endorsement by the American people, young and old, for Republican leadership. It was, in fact, a repudiation of the direction the public has seen over the last couple years. In fact, all of us would make the case that it’s not just the last couple years that turned America off; it is probably the last decade or so.”
“It is not just about Republicans being in this spot; Democrats are as well,” Cantor said. “We are all facing some very difficult choices as far as how we go about focusing this country.”
Turning to the current debate about extending the Bush-era tax cuts, Cantor argued that it will directly affect the economic future of the assembled. “It is the certainty connected with the extension of existing rates which will allow small businesses and large to have the confidence they need to go about putting money to work again.”
One student asked about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who’s widely considered to be a potential 2012 presidential candidate. He asked the congressmen about whether they could support him as the GOP nominee, especially since they’re working against repealing Obamacare and he ushered in a state health-care system to the Bay State.
The Romney question, unsurprisingly, made for some squirms.#more# “You’ve got to ask Mitt Romney that question,” Ryan said. “The mandate doesn’t work. This is something that we had opposed as part of Obamacare. What is happening in Massachusetts is sort of a foreshadowing of what will probably happen here, which is, you don’t buy the insurance until you’re really sick, because then you can buy it without a penalty. What happens then? Only sick people actually have the insurance. What actuaries call this is a ‘death spiral.’”
Cantor, meanwhile, emphasized his focus on repealing Obamacare, lowering costs, and promoting competition. “I do think that in the end that Mitt Romney would probably say he did not support Obamacare; I’m not familiar enough with the plan in Massachusetts to know why it is that that’s different, but I think — I’m not putting words in his mouth — that he would be supportive of our position when we voted against Obamacare, I know that.”
Looking ahead to how the GOP will balance repeal with worries about preexisting conditions, Cantor offered this: “What I think you will see us do is push for repeal of the health-care bill and at the same time, contemporaneously, submit our replacement bill. . . . We too do not want to accept any insurance company’s denial of someone and coverage for that person because he or she might have a preexisting condition. Likewise we want to make sure that someone of your age has the ability to access affordable care, whether it’s under your parents’ plan or elsewhere.”
With regard to the lame-duck session, Ryan reiterated the GOP’s position on the DREAM Act, a bill that would enable eligible alien minors to be put on a path to citizenship following high school, college, or enlistment in the military. “This isn’t something that we should be whisking through in a lame-duck session with no committee hearings,” he said.
“This is a nation founded on immigration,” Ryan added. “I’m here because the potatoes stopped growing in Ireland a number of years ago. We are an immigrant country; that’s a great thing. I believe in Manifest Destiny, I believe in the melting pot. The way in which I would proceed with immigration reform is, first of all, fixing the root causes of the problem. The DREAM Act, as noble as some of those ideas are, it’s kind of two wrongs trying to make a right. Let’s do a border-control bill, let’s do an employer-verification bill . . . let’s deal with visas . . . let’s deal then with the much more difficult issue of how to handle those who are here illegally, and do it in a way that does not create an amnesty . . . We can do this. It’s tough to do this without a lot of emotion, but you’ve got to do it in a methodical way.”