Roger L. Simon

Young Guns: The Conservative 2.0 Campaign Book

Campaign books are almost never “high literature,” nor are they usually intended to be.  And no one would mistake Young Guns:  A New Generation of Conservative Leaders for de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, but the new book (published tomorrow) by Congressmen Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy is the next best thing to a classic.  It is a war cry.

This war cry is not just the predictable excoriation of the failed liberal Democratic policies of Barack Obama, but a striking attack by the three Republican congressmen on their own party for having violated the small government principles upon which they were elected. If the Tea Party movement is looking for leadership, it may be sitting there in plain sight with Cantor, Ryan and McCarthy.

The book begins with a preface by the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, introducing the three authors: “Cantor the leader.  Ryan the thinker. McCarthy the strategist.”  It continues with a panel discussion among the three in which their themes begin to emerge.

From Cantor: [Democrats] assumed that there had been an ideological shift in this country toward big government and that they had a license to change this country. But this country is not about transformational change because it is firmly rooted in the first principles of our nation.  Nobody wants to mess with these founding principles.  But Democrats somehow convinced themselves that now was the time to enter the new world order; now was the time for us to become more European.  And they launched an effort that has become very frightening for the American people.

From Ryan: I was a staffer here during the mid-1990s after the [Republican’s] Contract with America. That was an incredible Congress of people from a cross section of America.  Doctors, small businesspeople, insurance brokers, farmers–people from across America.  We had people who really believed in ideas and principles.  And then slowly but surely as the conference matured, they started to recruit career politicians as opposed to citizen legislators.  They brought in more machine-like people.

From McCarthy:  Our recruits this time are like 1994  We’ve got new blood coming in here.  New recruits and reinforcements to get us back to our roots as a party, back to reclaiming the American idea and stopping the careerism.

Of course, these three gentlemen could be accused at this point of being career politicians themselves, but they clearly understand this contradiction, are airing it publicly, and struggling to stay principled.

The bulk of the short book continues with three longish essays, each by one of the authors.  They are essentially narratives of their recent experiences in Congress interspersed with their political views.

It’s amusing, and almost poignant, to read of their personal encounters with Barack Obama, who is practically their contemporary, a young gun himself of a very different sort. (Well, Ryan is a few years younger.) You get the feeling that Obama is oddly competitive with these men, senses that they have a strong ideological argument that he doesn’t want to confront — at least not for long.

The president’s nasty crack to Cantor —  “I won. So I think on that one, I trump you.” —  has been widely reported.  Less so his strained meeting with Paul Ryan.  At a House Republican retreat in early 2010, Obama apparently addressed the Wisconsin congressman out of nowhere, complimenting him on his just-released Roadmap for America’s Future, proposals for how to save some of our entitlement programs before they bankrupt the country.

Ryan was stunned — and pleasantly surprised that his ideas might have made some impact.  Not for long, however.  Within seventy hours the president’s former budget director, Peter Orszag, was attacking his plan as a “risky scheme.” (Shades of Al Gore debating Jack Kemp.) Soon after, Ryan reports, “…just be sure they got their point across, Democratic House members held a conference call with the media to hyperventilate that Roadmap supporters are ‘frozen in the ice  of their own indifference.’  I’m not making this up.  There is something about the alternative vision I put forth that must have really gotten under their skin.”

Indeed.

McCarthy’s personal story may be the most surprising of the three — or inspirational, considering our difficult economic times. As a teenager,  he won $5,000 from the California State Lottery.  Instead of blowing the money, as many of us would,  he used it to invest in a deli in Bakersfield that was successful enough to sell and pay for his own college education.  He is an organizer by instinct and has traveled the country, trying to make sure the errors of the Contract for America past are not repeated.

Through this book from the very first pages, a subtext fairly screams out at you.  What happens to these “young guns” if the Republicans take over the House in November?  What exactly will they do?  How will they get these plans actuated and how does that play out in the sometimes ugly world of practical politics?

More specifically, as is now rumored in Washington, will Eric Cantor — currently minority whip — take on John Boehner — the current minority leader — for speaker of the House, one of the most powerful jobs in our country and, as we know, second in line for presidential succession?

I have nothing in particular against Boehner, whom I have never met, other than that he seems to represent the past and business-as-usual. But it should be apparent that I would like to see Cantor try.  (Full disclosure: I have met the Virginia congressman a few times and interviewed him on PJTV.)  It would seem, if we are to believe the principles he and his colleagues state in their book, he has little choice but to do so.