Meet the GOP's Young Guns: Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy
Representative Paul Ryan
by John Nichols
If the Tea Party really is all about debts, deficits, spending and taxes—as opposed to the witchcraft, immigrant-bashing, birther fantasies and generalized Obama-hatred that forms its caricature—then Paul Ryan is the movement's Congressman. Handsome, good-natured and blessed with an ability to reduce the most complicated fiscal issues to conservative talking points that just happen to echo Wall Street's wish list, the Wisconsin representative has none of the rough edges of Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul. He is resolutely polite, certain without being overbearing, confident at the debate podium and, to a greater extent than any prominent Republican of the past two decades, Reaganesque.
Unfortunately, he has something else in common with the fortieth president: an approach to budget issues that owes more to Ayn Rand's paranoid fears about making even the most minimal civic demands on "productive" elites than to facts, figures or economic realism. Ryan's devotion to Rand, the author of dystopian novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and a favorite of the Tea Party movement's Glenn Beck wing, is fanatical. He requires Congressional staffers to read Rand's books and heaps praise on the prophetess of selfishness in YouTube videos that even fellow Republicans quietly acknowledge are unsettling.
Like another Rand devotee, former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, Ryan sees government not just as the "problem" Reagan described but as a greater threat to freedoms than the most extreme Tea Partisans imagine. Come January the Wisconsinite, who at 40 is one of the youngest members of Congress, will finally be in a position to address that perceived threat as chair of the Budget Committee, perhaps the most important in the new House. But this is not a case of an outsider storming the battlements and seizing a position of power. For all his Tea Party trappings, Ryan is a consummate insider, with a DC résumé extending back to the days of the first Bush presidency. This native of the hard-pressed Wisconsin factory town of Janesville spent almost a decade as an aide to conservative senators and twelve years representing a swing district that previously sent Democrat Les Aspin to chair the House Armed Services Committee. Ryan is about to put his long apprenticeship to work as one of the most definitional members of the new Congress.
Ryan's role as Budget Committee chair is almost certain to put him in conflict with President Obama, with whom the Congressman clashed earlier this year during a session on budget matters and entitlement spending. That, in turn, will buttress a profile that is sufficiently prominent to have stirred speculation that Ryan might be a 2012 GOP vice presidential prospect and, ultimately, a presidential contender.
A natural campaigner and landslide winner in a district that voted for Obama, Ryan has meticulously extended his influence in recent months as a star speaker on the Tea Party circuit, a campaigner for fellow Republicans and a guest on Beck's radio show and on Fox TV. Ryan now has a formal platform from which to argue for the radical shift in spending priorities outlined in his Roadmap for America's Future. That document, which he drafted as his party's prospects sank toward the close of George W. Bush's presidency, became an unofficial manifesto for economic conservatives during the 2010 election season.
Ryan, a faithful follower of free-market orthodoxies outlined by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, will thus be the highest-profile advocate for what many imagine to be "Reaganomics" since Reagan. But Ryan goes much further than did the fortieth president. The Congressman's latest version of the Roadmap for America's Future would:
§ begin the process of privatizing Social Security;
§ replace Medicare as we know it and most of Medicaid with a voucher program that would eventually reduce the value of the vouchers;
§ abolish the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP);
§ abolish the corporate income tax;
§ abolish the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax;
§ eliminate income taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest;
§ provide across-the-board tax cuts to even the richest Americans;
§ explore flat tax and consumption tax models that do away with progressive taxation.
Those proposals are sure to provoke fights—not just with the White House and Congressional Democrats but with some Republicans too. When Ryan proposed an alternative budget in 2009, it won only 137 votes in the House, with thirty-eight Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the plan. Ryan was sharply criticized in 2009 for failing to make even a minimal attempt to balance his budget proposal.
Dismissing Ryan's Roadmap as a "sham," Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman says that, if implemented, it would cause a $4 trillion revenue shortfall over the next decade. Krugman frets that Ryan's approach "would raise taxes for 95 percent of the population" while cutting them for corporations and the wealthiest Americans so deeply that policy-makers would be faced with a choice between gutting popular programs like Medicare and ballooning the deficit.
Even sympathetic economists like Ted Gayer argue that Republicans would need to amend many of Ryan's proposals in order to avoid a severe revenue shortfall. But Ryan's fans, led by former House majority leader and Tea Party patron Dick Armey, are mustering a coalition to oppose any such compromise. Armey promises to use his FreedomWorks network to promote the Roadmap. Ryan's ideas "will be taken more seriously if there are outside forces [pressuring] members of Congress," Armey says. "Republicans have been too timid to make his arguments. Now those same ideas have a ready-made audience."
Ryan is ready. Like Greenspan, he's a true-believing long-distance runner who will devote all the time it takes to popularize ideas borrowed from the economic fringe and the Ayn Rand library. He won't implement his agenda in 2011. His purpose is to shape the debate and, with the help of Armey's Tea Party and its amen corner in the media, position Republicans for 2012 victories that he believes will allow him to design a future in which Wall Street has our Social Security money, Medicare is a memory and billionaire Atlases can shrug off the last of their tax burdens and regulatory responsibilities.
Representative Eric Cantor
by Ari Berman
Disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff used to name sandwiches at his Washington deli after his favorite politicians. The roast beef on challah was known as "the Eric Cantor." It was unveiled at a $500-a-plate fundraiser held for Cantor at Abramoff's restaurant in January 2003. The Virginia Congressman neglected to disclose the fundraiser, labeling it a "paperwork issue" and "chicken droppings." The event was hardly surprising—Cantor owes his prominence to Washington's lobbyist-industrial complex. In 2002 Abramoff ally Tom DeLay plucked Cantor, then a sophomore House member from Richmond, from obscurity and made him, at 39, the youngest member of the House Republican leadership. Now he's the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House and on a fast track to becoming speaker one day.
Cantor got there through a mix of fundraising prowess, media savvy and party devotion. As the only Jewish Republican in the House, he provides a crucial link between pro-Israel donors and Christian conservatives. And by virtue of his coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which oversees government revenues and spending, he's been able to raise more than $30 million for Republican colleagues from his favored companies in corporate America, like Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Philip Morris and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. He's a staunch conservative—militantly pro-Israel on foreign policy and hostile to any type of tax—who earned a perfect 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2009 and led the fight against Obama's 2009 stimulus bill. Cantor is a prominent advocate for repealing "Obamacare" and has asked the public to vote on which government programs they'd like to cut, pledging to "put Uncle Sam on a diet." In a post-election meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cantor "stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the administration," according to his office. (He also ludicrously accused Democrats of "dangerously fanning the flames" against Republicans in the wake of the healthcare bill and of firing a bullet into his Richmond office; this later turned out to be the result of random gunfire.)
Cantor wasn't always a small-government conservative. During the Bush era he voted for key planks of the corporate-friendly, big-government GOP agenda, such as Medicare Part D and the bank bailout. These votes later angered Tea Party activists, who have occasionally had a contentious relationship with the Republican leader. "I have yet to meet a Tea Party activist here who adores Rep. Eric Cantor," Slate's Dave Weigel reported from the Virginia Tea Party Patriots convention in October. Over the summer, Cantor said he opposed the creation of a Tea Party caucus in the House and recently supported Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling over Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann in the race for Republican House Conference chair. In response, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Cantor if he was trying to protect the GOP's "old boys' network."
Cantor is likely to take his cues from John Boehner in the new Congress and avoid making too many waves. He lacks the flamboyance of Boehner and the intellectual heft of right-wing wunderkind Paul Ryan. Cantor has always been a good soldier, and that's why Republican leaders and lobbyists like him so much.
Representative Kevin McCarthy
by Sasha Abramsky
Kevin McCarthy, the incoming GOP House whip, is most often compared (by himself, among others) not to other Republicans but to Rahm Emanuel. Unlike the Tea Party insurgents who garnered so many headlines before the election, McCarthy in many ways typifies the new House GOP, not least because he's the author of the party's simple and opportunistic but effective Pledge to America. McCarthy is an inside player who has lived and breathed politics for decades, at least since his leadership of the College Republicans at the Cal State campus he attended as an undergraduate in the 1980s (after a brief sojourn as a delicatessen owner in his early 20s).
McCarthy used strong fundraising abilities in his campaigns for the California Statehouse in the early years of the century. Entering a legislature in which strict term limits had stripped away the presence of older, more experienced legislators, the youthful McCarthy soon took charge of his party's deeply conservative cadre of state legislators. And although he talked the talk on many conservative issues, especially on fiscal themes, he was also able to work with enough Democrats to get a series of budgets passed in the middle of the decade. Surprisingly, he forged a friendship with Democratic Party stalwart John Burton, who phoned to congratulate McCarthy recently on hearing that he was likely to be named Republican whip.
"He was an affable guy," recalls Sacramento Bee senior editor Dan Morain, who covered politics in the state capital while McCarthy was in town. "Able to articulate the Republican position. Smart guy. He was able to raise money. He was, as they say, operational."
Intensely ambitious, McCarthy soon made the move for Washington, successfully running for Congress in 2006. In the election cycles since then, he has assiduously courted banks and other big-business interests, receiving large amounts of PAC money from, and contributions from employees of, such titans as Goldman Sachs, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AFLAC and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. And critically, McCarthy has helped his less able, less confident GOP peers get access to these funds too. GOP media consultant Wayne Johnson recalls seeing McCarthy coaching nervous freshman Congressmen on how to coax money out of local donors over the phone. In the 2010 election cycle, as he was making his move into more elite party circles, McCarthy raised a million dollars for candidates around the country, much of it from the insurance, securities, pharmaceutical, entertainment and healthcare industries. In a game of quid pro quo, this gives him a huge head start in the jockeying to secure seats on important committees and in the race for GOP leadership positions.
Hailing from the conservative Southern California desert town of Bakersfield, the 45-year-old McCarthy, who commutes from coast to coast on an almost weekly basis, came up through the legendary political machine surrounding onetime House Ways and Means Committee chair Bill Thomas. McCarthy learned to love the stuff of pragmatic victory far more than the joys of ideological purity. Thomas's people, explains Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state and Congressional races, are "very practical, political people" who thrive in election environments; they love matching candidates to districts, distrust ideological rigidity and work their tails off to gain an edge for their party.
Like Rahm Emanuel, McCarthy is party-partisan, caring deeply for the institutional success of the GOP. The incoming whip, say observers, is far more interested in the game of politics than in complex theoretical policy models or one-size-fits-all ideological packages. "He would be far more exercised talking about water policy than about abortion or one of those hot-button issues," observes Johnson. "He doesn't manipulate symbols for a living. He's not a person who adopts five very popular positions, none of which he'll ever have an effect on in his life." (Others might take issue with that last point, given McCarthy's role as author of the GOP pledge.)
Over the past two years, McCarthy crisscrossed the country, scouting out local wannabe political figures who would gel with the needs of their specific Congressional districts, campaigning for them, helping them hone their message. Most of his candidates won. "The people he got in were not the Sharron Angle types, people who ended up being disasters as candidates," Quinn says. McCarthy's candidates, he says, "talked about taxes, overspending, healthcare. And they did very well in the suburbs, simply running on fiscal issues. He's very much a pragmatist."
As whip, McCarthy will have his job cut out for him. After all, although half the GOP freshmen owe their jobs in part to McCarthy and his pragmatic, deal-cutting vision of politics, the other half got in with significant Tea Party backing. They'll be looking to cut their mad-as-hell swaths through Washington. And McCarthy, a skilled Machiavellian who will not want to alienate voters and put the GOP majority at risk in 2012 by hewing too far to the right, will have the task of reining in his party's extremists. He might well succeed; he's clearly talented. But there's at least a chance it will end up proving a bridge too far.