‘The confidence that was placed in us was blown,” says Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s No. 2 Republican. “We are not under any illusion that this election is turning on the fact that people are pining for Republicans. We get that. It’s all against the other side.” But after four years in the political wilderness, he says House Republicans have “learned from our mistakes,” and are ready to lead again.
To convince wary voters, Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California have published Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders (Threshold Editions). The 196-page paperback is a reflective manifesto that introduces Americans to what Cantor calls a “better way.” It is also a revealing look inside the political ideas and personalities of three men who hope to help lead the House should the GOP take back the majority in November.
In a wide-ranging interview with National Review editors earlier this week, Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy discussed the book and their outlook as the midterm elections approach. “Obviously, things look good,” Cantor says, “but there is plenty of time for us to mess things up — or for us to execute.” No one, it seems, is measuring the drapes for cushy new Capitol digs. Unlike in 1994, when the GOP last toppled a Democratic House majority, “we are not sneaking up on them,” McCarthy cautions. “Thirty-nine seats is a lot of seats to win.”
While they play down expectations, the trio is hustling to try and boost the party’s chances in the campaign’s final weeks. McCarthy notes that Young Guns is a key part of building a foundation for the party’s upcoming formal policy agenda, “the so-called Contract.” What emerges later this month will be a “governing document,” he says. For now, Young Guns is an appetizer for voters who are just tuning in.
Over nine chapters — three by each representative — the congressmen map out lessons from their years in the minority and what they have done to combat Obama’s overreach. Personal anecdotes, political shop talk, and ruminations on the future of the country are peppered throughout. While the book is light on policy specifics, it is an effective primer about the kind of caucus this crop of Republicans is eager to build. Its prose is argumentative, sometimes casual, but rarely polemic — an ode to conservatism more than an attack on President Obama, told by resolute, fortysomething Republicans wearied, but not broken, by Beltway politics.
Part one, written by Cantor, is a sharp critique of past GOP excess as well as a big-picture take on the Obama-Pelosi agenda that touches on the lessons of the 2009 elections, Obamacare, the stimulus, and foreign policy. Part two, penned by Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, is serious glance at America’s “fiscal fantasies” and his “Roadmap” proposal to curb entitlement spending. Ryan, a former speechwriter for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, also delivers a punch to the “progressives” who “truly believe the best course for America is to abandon the American idea for a model much like the European Union.” Part three is McCarthy as strategist: a memo to party faithful about the party’s refurbished political operation. McCarthy, the GOP’s deputy whip and chief candidate recruiter, also highlights a handful of candidates, as well as the party’s embrace of technology, from iPods and podcasts to consistent online interaction with citizens.
“I came to Congress in 1998, which I would call the beginning of the atrophy phase of our party,” Ryan says. In the last decade, the GOP “has lost our moorings, lost our ways.” Ryan, who grew up in Janesville, Wis., lost his father during his teenage years. “I recall my dad often telling me, ‘Son, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,’” he writes. “My father’s lessons were kept in the front of my mind when I first came to Washington in my early twenties. . . . Republicans abandoned the true path and suffered electoral defeats. But we have not returned from this experience empty handed.”
To Ryan, Young Guns and his partnership with Cantor and McCarthy, along with the support of Rep. John Boehner, the House GOP leader, is a preemptive strike against future GOP stumbles. “We just want to make sure that we don’t screw this thing up again,” he says, to nods from his coauthors. Ryan adds that he sees his and his allies shared effort to revitalize the party’s message is a “sort of shadowboxing proxy fight” in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. That election, he predicts, will be the “real referendum.”
“These progressives are serious, but they’re the minority in this country,” Ryan continues. “We are a center-right country. If we bring a clear, well-defined referendum to the country, we’ll win. So we should do it. Because if we don’t, you turn on all this government, all of these things that are going to pop into line, and in a handful of years, we could start losing this referenda forever. So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do here.”
Cantor agrees. “We’re going to have to take some steps in a very deliberate, regular way on the floor,” he says. “We did this YouCut program and that got us in the mode every week for nine weeks to bring a bill to the floor that cuts spending. These are incremental steps we can take to begin to change the culture — to lay the context for a budget,” that will, in coming years, “start a real discussion on entitlements.”
Pushing for an “honest debate” on taxes and spending, Cantor says, will be crucial for the GOP’s success — win or lose the House. “Part of what we’re trying to do is push back on this whole notion that we are defending the fat cats on Wall Street,” he says. “They’ve given us some fodder now, and the ability to say, ‘Look what they’ve done.’ The mortgage market is where most people are suffering. An extraordinary number of people are still underwater in this country in their mortgage, and right now it’s artificially deflated in terms of rates.”
“At some point, we’re going to have to be able to demonstrate that this doesn’t come for free,” Cantor adds. “The more the housing market languishes and the longer it takes for the values to come back up, I think, the more we can say that failed policies in Washington explain why things just can’t get going here.”
All three look to the current roster of GOP candidates across the country as future partners in power. Relative to past freshman classes, Republican hopefuls this year are more ideological and committed to changing Washington, they say. “Say we are fortunate enough to win,” McCarthy says. “This class will be one of the largest freshman classes we have ever had, possibly larger than in 1994. And they come at a different time. Unemployment in ’94 was nowhere near what it is today. These people are not running because of an individual issue inside their district — a bridge, a factory. Instead, they say, ‘I’m running because I saw the country change before my eyes. How do I tell my children I did nothing?’”
Such sentiments ring true with Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy, who appear to be determined to address the country’s fiscal and economic problems with guns blazing.
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.