Want more from Sunday TODAY? Catch up on our interviews and features here

Pop Culture

Conservative ‘Young Guns’ offer views on America’s future

Meet the young guns: A roundtable discussion

On March 11, 2010, House Republicans agreed to a one year moratorium on earmarks — or, as they are referred to informally — sweetheart deals. A few hours later, Congressmen Eric Cantor of Virginia, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Kevin McCarthy of California gathered around Diet Cokes and bottled water to discuss this milestone and how it fits into their vision of change in Washington.

PR: We’ve been like Sisyphus on this thing. We’ve been pulling this earmark moratorium rock up the hill only to be rolled over with it by the people who like earmarks. We’ve been working on this thing for five years.

EC: I think enough members finally realized that the level of frustration among the public is at such a fever pitch right now that we had no choice. We had to say enough is enough.

PR: Yeah, this was culture change for our conference [the House Republicans]. And it just shows that our conference is beginning to acknowledge reality, acknowledge where the people are.

KM: Part of this stems from the town hall meetings. They’ve changed people’s minds. If you’ve been out there lately, you know that the public is screaming for this. And there’s also the fact that we’re coming off a month in which we hit $200 billion, just for this month, in the deficit.

EC: I think being in the extreme minority is what it took for us to have the dose of contrition necessary to do this. But I also think you’re seeing now an administration and a congressional leadership in Nancy Pelosi that is so extreme in ignoring the public. We see it and feel it when we go home.

People are so upset. Earmarks are such a symbol of the problem in Washington. We know the moratorium doesn’t fix the problem but it certainly is the beginning. It’s a recognition that we need to change the culture.

KM: On the flight in this week, it just happened that sitting next to me was Gary Hart. We were having a kind of generational talk about Washington. And one of the things he pointed out that was wrong with Washington was earmarks. He said Republicans and Democrats had both been poisoned by earmarks.

PR: The way I see what happened with this earmark moratorium is we have finally begun to cleanse ourselves of the corruption that occurred when Republicans were in the majority. I was a staffer here during the mid-1990s after the Contract with America. That was an incredible Congress of people from a cross section of America. Doctors, small businesspeople, insurance brokers, farmers — people from all 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. And I think our leadership changed and adopted the position that, well, we beat the Democrats’ machine, now it’s time to create a Republican machine to keep us in the majority. And out of that came this earmark culture.

KM: 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.

EC: We really are beginning to feel like we’re on offense now. We lost our way when we were in the majority. We stopped playing offense. We lost our sense of what we were here for. It was almost as if the institution overcame us and became the priority. Now, being in the deep minority we’ve gained a better sense of where we need to take this country and where we need to lead. It starts with recognizing that the people expect a certain level of conduct and behavior and the people expect a certain level of humility out of their government, in contrast to the arrogance they see coming out of the majority today.

PR: And we also have to declare our principles. They are the nation’s founding principles. And then we have to show how we are going to apply them to the problems of the day. And show how we will use these principles to guide our actions in a very transparent and clear way. I think what happened to the Republicans before was we had a majority of people who came here to do something and we atrophied into a majority of people who came here to be something.

KM: And we lost our ideas along the way.

PR: Yeah, we lost ideas and we lost our core. Now we’re back to being doers again because we’re seeing what the Democrats are offering. We’re seeing how they want to transform this country into a cradle-to-grave European social welfare state and change the idea of America forever.

KM: There was a group of us at a dinner on the night of the inaugural. We got together because we weren’t invited to anything else [laughter]. But instead of drowning our sorrows, we talked about how to rebuild and how to come back to our principles. That was a turning point.

EC: And at the same time, Democrats were assuming that they had this mandate. They 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 for America 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.

PR: They shocked the American people. They shocked us. They certainly shocked me. I wasn’t sure what kind of president Obama was going to be. I thought, maybe this guy is going to be a centrist — his rhetoric was centrist. His upbringing and his history didn’t suggest he was centrist but his rhetoric did. So I was thinking, well, we’ll see. And then — bam! — out of the gates, these people had a hardcore-left agenda. We, along with the American people, were spectators while they took this government very far left, very fast. But what became so unnerving to us and the American people is that they used our rhetoric. They used the rhetoric of freedom and choice and opportunity to sell an inherently statist agenda; to sell an agenda that was completely the opposite of its rhetoric.

And people started to realize that they were trying to transform the country using the rhetoric of the Right to push through the substance of the Left.

KM: It was the stimulus bill that woke us up. Remember, the president was still at 70 percent approval. He comes into our caucus and says he’s going to work with us on a bill. Then we walk out and Speaker Pelosi introduces a bill without our input.

EC: It became a very defining moment for this conference, that stimulus bill.

PR: Very much so.

KM: Remember the hours we spent sitting in Eric’s conference room drafting the alternative to the stimulus? We drafted an alternative that was better, that created twice the jobs for half the money. I think that’s when we got our mojo back.

PR: And then as the year went on, if you listened to the new majority it was actually pretty clear what their intentions were. I remember being up until midnight one night debating the healthcare bill in early November [2009]. Emotions were running very high. Everyone was coming to the floor and really speaking their mind. And I sat there and watched liberal dinosaur after liberal dinosaur — people who have been in Congress longer than I’ve been living or since I was in the first or second grade — and they all basically said the same thing, which really opened my eyes. They said, “This is finally our opportunity to bring about the completion of the progressive agenda.” One of them said this was the “third wave of progressivism. There was the New Deal, the Great Society, and now we are completing the vision of transforming America into what it needs to be.” And what that means is turning the Constitution on its head, forgetting about the idea of equal opportunity.

EC: It became about them. It became about their sense of why they were here and their desire to win.

PR: And it became about the destiny they had charted for themselves, which, I think, helped us reach our own sense of destiny.

EC: And it was so anathema to what the American people were thinking at the time or wanted for this country. That’s what the country saw. They saw that the powers in charge here are ignorant of what the people want and frankly arrogant about it. And it became more about their need to win.

Look at the health-care debate. It’s tough for them to get their minds around the fact that the people don’t want this country transformed the way they want it. They just believe that, number one, the means justify the ends. And number two, that this country needs to become more like a social democracy.

KM: That government knows better.

PR: It’s completely antithetical to what this country is about.

EC: They really believe there is an inherent unfairness in the free market and that they need to be the ones to intervene to right the wrongs of the markets and of the big bad world of business. They believe that some people make too much money, others don’t. They believe they’re here to accomplish equal outcomes, not equal opportunity.

KM: Look at President Obama. Who has been close to him? Trial lawyers, unions, community organizers. All three are redistributors of wealth, not creators of wealth. So in his mind he’s always thought, “I need to redistribute wealth. I don’t need to worry about creating wealth, because that just always happens.”

PR: It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and of the concepts of liberty, freedom, and self-determination. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. He believes that the pie is fixed and that he needs to more equitably divide up the slices.

KM: He doesn’t believe in growing the pie. PR: They’re making a political calculation. Right now, we are a right-of-center country. But if they can create the newest and biggest entitlement we’ve ever had they can take us past the tipping point, after which more people are takers rather than makers — more people are living off the state than are living independent of it. I believe they think the orientation of the country will turn and become a left-of-center country. This is an investment in their future. They’re going to take some short-term losses but they will come back because they are completing the vision they have for this country.

KM: They think if they make government so large and the debt so big it will be impossible to reverse it.

PR: The American government, in their minds, isn’t nearly as big as it ought to be compared to our Western European counterparts. We’re historically at 20 percent of GDP. They think we ought to go to 30 percent of GDP for the federal government. You add in state and local government and you’re at 50 percent of GDP and that’s where Europe is.

EC: This time in the minority has given us all a chance to remember why we came here. It’s given us the chance — especially in comparison with what the Democrats are doing — to see what has worked in this country, which is entrepreneurship, free markets, and a level playing field. We need to refocus our party toward the future and the young people. It’s up to us to provide them with more opportunity. I hear it again and again when I go home. Right now kids are getting out of college and they’re not finding jobs. So if we reclaim the majority in November, we must, first of all, tell the public what they can expect from us. And we also have to realize that this isn’t going to be a one- or two-year process. We have got to rebuild the public’s trust through taking concrete steps to get our fiscal house in order. We have to show that we get it. Clearly the other side has demonstrated that they don’t get where the public is. We’ve got to reconnect and inspire people.

PR: The American people still love the American idea. And the American idea is at risk today. So in this election and in the 2012 election we have to give the American people a very clear agenda based upon our actions and our principles. We have to give them a very clear choice.

KM: That’s why I think the time is right. You value things the most when you lose them. Who would have thought America could be going the way it’s going now? With government taking over businesses? With government taking over health care? We’ve always believed in freedom as a country but now we’re starting to understand that we have to fight for it.

PR: If we get this majority, we have to build on it. We have to go to the American people with an agreement. We’ve got to show how we can restore this country’s greatness by reasserting and reapplying its principles.

EC: What we have to do is lay out an agenda toward which we can lead the people and they’ll come along and back us. People get that there is unsustainable spending going on; that we’re spending money we don’t have right now. But I don’t think most people wake up in the morning and think about our entitlement programs crashing. We have to be able to connect that circumstance with their everyday lives. That has to be the impetus for us to begin to devolve power back to the states.

KM: It’s unshackling the grip that Washington has on so much of our lives.

EC: Right, but we’re going to have to be able to go to the people and demonstrate how that helps them. Like in the area of education. Joe Pitts [R-PA] has a program he’s worked on for years that’s all about dollars in the schools and dollars in the classrooms, not dollars to the unions and the bureaucracy. We have to go to parents and say we are about letting the local schools get more dollars and that means don’t let the dollars be trapped here in Washington. Same thing with transportation.

PR: People think that their country is slipping away from them. They think that their future is not going to be as bright. So they’re ready to embrace a reclamation of what made this country great. And if we get back into the majority we cannot fall from this fight. We can’t be intimidated. We can’t worry about the demagoguery and the negative ads we’re going to get.

KM: But you also have to create a system that allows your changes to endure. It goes back to what Eric said about education. The average salary in the Department of Education right down the street here is $103,000. That’s the average salary of the employee that works there. Wouldn’t that money be better spent in the classroom?

EC: You get a double benefit from ending that. If you’re going to keep dollars in the classrooms, not only are you benefiting the kids but you’re also reducing the size of Washington, which helps to get rid of the corruption and the cronyism and the self-perpetuating nature of power here.

KM: We have four million more government jobs in America than manufacturing jobs. That is an upside-down model. PR: That’s right. People are getting a glimpse of what this country could become. They know that’s not who we are. They know that’s not reaching our potential. I think people are ready if we show them a party of leadership and of principle and an agenda that gets it.

KM: It has to be accountable.

PR: We have to give the American people a referendum. We will win this referendum if we have it now. If we wait and delay five or six years we will lose this referendum. The public is way ahead of the political class. They get that things are broken. They get that we’re spending their kids’ inheritance and mortgaging their future. They are ready to be talked to like adults and not like children. So, when they see the demagoguery that is directed toward people or ideas that are sincere and are real, it doesn’t work anymore. The Democrats are going to come at us with their old playbook.

They’re going to tap into the emotions of fear, anger, and envy. But that’s not aspirational. That’s not hope and change, and I don’t think it’s going to work anymore.

EC: There is a test for us though. This country is changing demographically. This country is growing older and we’ve been in an entitlement mindset for a while. That’s what we’re going to change. We’re going to be about an opportunity future, not an entitlement future. That’s why it’s important that we go out and make the case to those nearing retirement that they’re not going to be denied what they have coming.

PR: But if we act now, it won’t be all root canal. This is growth, this is opportunity, this is hope. This is maintaining our commitments to those who are nearing retirement. If we act now, we can honor those commitments. If we don’t act, we won’t be able to.

Reprinted with permission from “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders” (Threshold Editions) by Congressmen Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy.