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.