When Mitt Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for the Republican vice presidential nomination, he chose more than a man. He got a movement.
Ryan is a founder of the Young Guns, a group of GOP lawmakers known — like the characters in the forgettable Hollywood horse opera from which they take their name — for youth, edge, and attitude.
They have a reputation for confrontation, not cooperation.
“We have finally begun to cleanse ourselves of the corruption that occurred when Republicans were (last) in the majority,” Ryan promised in the group’s 2010 manifesto. “We cannot be intimidated.”
“I think Romney has now tethered himself to a very rigid, uncompromising right-wing approach,” says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, which Ryan chairs.
The Young Guns moniker — in fact the whole movement — was invented five years ago by creative editors at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. It is now far more than media hype, and wields considerable clout in Washington. Ryan is now on the national ticket and his two Young Gun cofounders — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of California — rank right behind Speaker John Boehner in the House Republican leadership.
Behind the Young Gun troika march dozens of foot soldiers, giving the Romney-Ryan campaign a special connection in a hundred or so congressional districts. Like former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his revolutionary cadre of 1994, the Young Guns have worked diligently to identify promising candidates around the country, raise money for their campaigns, teach them political skills, and educate them in conservative doctrine.
The Young Guns are in politics “with a purpose,” says Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser to the movement’s super PAC. “It is absolutely a movement,” he says. “To go on offense. To make a difference. Not just to come to Washington and wear a 'Member' pin.”
Since 2009, the program has been lodged in the National Republican Congressional Committee, where it played a key role in the Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Step by step, candidates move up a ladder from “On the Radar” to “Contender” to “Young Guns Vanguard” to the final, coveted laurel of “Young Gun.”
“They have set up a system for identifying top-quality candidates, and a formal structure with metrics that can be assessed,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark, one of the Young Gun candidates from 2010.
The Young Gun leaders “sacrificed personally” in 2010. “They traveled, visited with candidates, spent time away from home in the districts,” said Griffin, and the work paid off. In the 2010 cycle there were 92 candidates who achieved “Young Gun” status, according to the organization, and 62 of them were elected.
There are now a Young Gun super PAC and two political nonprofits, the YG Network and the YG Policy Center. In the 2012 election cycle, 30 Republican candidates have reached the “Young Guns” level, including Mia Love, an African-American mayor from Utah, and Richard Tisei, a gay state legislator from Massachusetts who supports same-sex marriage.
Van Hollen acknowledges that the Young Guns “brand … has certainly been good marketing,” but says the verdict is still out on the program’s impact. “I am not sure about the real-world effect,” he said. “The 2010 election could have ended up as it did without the branding of Young Guns.”
The Young Gun leaders don’t stop working when their candidates get elected. There’s a continuing process toward a “lasting relationship,” as the NRCC puts it. In gatherings that range in mood from pep rally to postgraduate seminar, the Young Guns offer an exercise in continuing education. They give lawmakers the tools — the analysis and the argument — to take on the dreaded “liberal lifers,” as Cantor calls the opposition.
“When that new majority came in you had a lot of people who were like-minded and focused on things like debt and taxes,” said Griffin. He said that Ryan and other Young Gun leaders "are adamant about emphasizing facts — to talk in bold strokes but to put meat on the bones, particularly on (politically explosive) issues like Medicare. They routinely help us through educational sessions to better understand the specifics, as opposed to just saying, 'Why don’t you talk about this?' and 'Good luck.' ”
Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan were christened as Young Guns on the cover of the Weekly Standard in September 2007 by a rightwing intelligentsia desperate for fresh blood to promote on Capitol Hill. It was the waning of George W. Bush’s presidency. The regime of Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay had collapsed in scandal, debt, and political ruin, giving the Democrats control of the House in the 2006 election.
The Weekly Standard editors baptized their three amigos with titles worthy of an Avengers comic book. Cantor was “Leader.” McCarthy was “Strategist.” And Ryan was “Thinker.” In 2010, on the eve of their own takeover of the House, the three published “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” a volume of argument and biography that described their odyssey.
The Bush-era Republicans had fallen victim to “the corruption that is at the heart of every political machine,” Cantor wrote. “Republicans were becoming more concerned with winning than governing … they became what they had campaigned against: arrogant and out of touch.”
The Young Guns were, Cantor wrote, “a new generation of Republican leaders eager to put our past sins behind us.”
The Young Guns shared some overlapping goals with the amateurs of the tea party, especially an abhorrence of taxes. But there is no mistaking them for grassroots rubes; all three are career politicians and longtime allies of the hedge-fund managers, bankers, and other corporate interests that fill their campaign coffers. For all they talk about private enterprise, Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy all went on the public payroll in their twenties, and have cashed government or political paychecks all their working lives.
They are best characterized as younger, ambitious movement conservatives. And that ambition is sometimes revealed in the political expediency of their voting records. Ryan, for instance, voted in the Bush years for a huge expansion of the federal debt to pay for two wars and a costly but popular increase in the Medicare prescription drug program; to rescue the auto industry, and bail out Wall St. with TARP — the Troubled Asset Relief Program despised by tea party activists.
A President Romney may find it difficult to control that ambition. In the tax and spending wars of the 112th Congress, the Young Guns were impediments to the efforts by President Obama and Boehner to reach a budget deal. Negotiations ultimately broke down, amid accusations of bad faith on both sides. The resulting stalemate led to a downgrade of the U.S. government’s bond rating, and public approval of Congress plunged to record depths.
“Theirs is is a very hard-edged right-wing ideological agenda,” said Van Hollen. “They are no longer the upstarts in the House. They are in control of the House of Representatives in many ways.”
Any tensions between the Young Guns and Boehner (and the more veteran and moderate Republicans with whom he is allied) now seem dwarfed by a unified desire to defeat Democrats and rein in runaway government spending — a factor that will carry on into a Romney administration.
“It is obvious that America can’t continue to spend billions and trillions of dollars we don’t have,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the speaker. “Republicans have been able to put the Democrats on the defensive, and the Young Guns and especially Paul Ryan have been at the forefront, dispelling the lies and myths of Democrats who want to put spending on autopilot.”
But the challenge for Romney may be the same one which has burdened Boehner: to harness the energy of his conservative gunslingers and their tea party allies without getting shot in the back.