A few things become clear upon picking up Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders, the new book by Republican House members Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy. First, "young" is apparently a relative term in the GOP. Second, a better title might have been, Half-Cocked: Old Ideas From a "New" Generation of Conservative Leaders. And finally, half-cocked though they may be, these "young" guns are not shooting blanks. Their "ammunition" is as old as they are but still quite deadly. And we have the economy to prove it.
The same rule that applied to the GOP's "Young Eagles" — that donor group for whom the RNC held a fiscally-irresponsible recruitment event in an ill-chosen venue: "young" is pretty much anyone under 45. In one sense, I find that encouraging. Since I'm one year older than the youngest of the "young" guns (Paul Ryan, 40), I'm still "young" by their definition. (McCarthy, 45, still has a tenuous grasp on "youth." But Cantor (47) is a bit past his "sell-by" date.)
In the foreword, Fred Barnes (you may remember him from such shows as The Beltway Boys and The McLaughlin Group) does them the favor of making their titles seem less self-appointed by labeling them as, "Cantor the leader, Ryan the thinker, McCarthy the strategist." If these three are what passes for "young," it bodes ill for what they will spend the next couple hundred pages passing off as conservative "leadership" or conservative "thinking," let alone strategy.
But for the moment let's take them at their word that they are right's "idea men," and future leaders of the conservative movement. (Hey, if it's good enough for Newt Gingrich, it's good enough for me.)
Why didn't someone stop them? As Bill Scher shows in his new "Top 10 Crazy Things Conservatives Say" series (with research assistance from yours truly) conservative office-seekers and office-holders (including leadership) have racked up quite a "bloopers" reel, just in the past 18 months. Why did no one check these "young guns," and stopped them from going off half-cocked, given their track records.
If the "young guns" aren't highlighted on that "bloopers" reel, they should be. Even without cracking the book (which I assure you I did, and spent the weekend digesting), indeed even before they wrote it, there was enough cause for concern.
Cantor — the oldest and arguably the most experienced of the "young guns" — has, in some circles, a reputation as a "policy wonk." There's some suspicion, however, that Cantor may have fallen victim to the "smart kids wear glasses" legend. As Ezra Klein pointed out, Cantor hasn't brought much to the table policy-wise, except (as Cantor himself points out in his section of the book) the "hand-outs" for the health care summit. His recent attempt at leadership, a GOP "re-branding" effort dubbed the "National Council for a New America," got ripped apart by the social conservatives in the GOP base when it debuted. It hasn't held a single event since, perhaps because it was hobbled by House rules after Cantor launched it from his leadership office.
And this is before taking into consideration Cantor's railing against the stimulus, and claiming that it hasn't created any non-government jobs, only to turn around and host a jobs fair in his district with employers funded by the stimulus.
Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has become a media darling, a process which culminated in his coronation, in no less than the New York Times, as a leading conservative thinker. That's probably because the media has decided to "leave aside ... the viability of the roadmap," Paul's plan for America's future. It's a future that doesn't include a balanced budget, but does include massive rationing of just about everything due to Draconian cuts in everything from Pell Grants to food stamps, eliminating Social Security and Medicare, tax increases for the middle class, and the largest tax cuts in history for the wealthy.
And he's "the thinker"?
McCarthy may be the least well known of the three, but he's clearly in the same mold. Before he made a splash dubbing the Deepwater Horizon disaster "Obama's Katrina" (despite it having conservatism's fingerprints all over it), McCarthy's meteoric rise in the GOP started with Roll Call dubbing him "rookie of the year, " two years ago. If the GOP wins big in 2010, McCarthy will get a lot of the credit. But it won't be due to his party "listening" to American voters.
Earlier this year, McCarthy led the launch of the GOPs AmericaSpeakingOut.Com, the party's attempt at crowdsourcing ideas and ideology. It turned out to be a virtual listening tour that was not a listening tour.
They weren't anymore prepared for America to "speak," than they were to listen. Within minutes of launching, a poster suggested repealing the Civil Rights Act. (Other ideas including prohibiting the teaching that dolphins and whales are mammals, and ending child labor laws. Abandoning the notion of "putting policy in the hands of voters," the GOP attempted to grab the reins, prohibiting ideas to raise taxes, but leaving Hitler references and anti-Latino rhetoric intact. To top it all off, the national security ideas on the site were largely progressive ideas.
This is strategy?
Well, yes, of a sort. Divisive strategy is still strategy. Deluded leadership is still leadership. Disastrous ideas are still ideas.
Half-cocked though these "young guns" may be, they are still "locked 'n' loaded." Their ammo consists of decades-old conservative ideas that have left the economy riddled with bullet holes, and looking less and less likely to rise again. (As yet, emergency rescue has not arrived, despite many calls for it.)
The economy is down, and even for these guys it's an easy shot if their aim is halfway decent and they've got even one bullet left between them —with the economy's name on it. And an extra for America's middle class.