Commentary: A Cicero with a future
WASHINGTON -- Winning California's state lottery with the first ticket he bought put Kevin McCarthy, then 20, on a path to becoming, in January, the third-ranking Republican leader of a House majority pledged to make government less bountiful. With the $5,000 he won in 1985, McCarthy opened a sandwich shop in a nook in a small mall in Bakersfield, and hung a sign calling attention to it. When a government vehicle arrived, he thought city hall might have come "to give me the key to the city" as thanks for generating some jobs and sales tax revenues. But Bakersfield's bureaucracy wanted to complain about his sign, which somehow fell short of sign orthodoxy.
Annoyance led, as it often does, to politics. McCarthy served on the staff of the local congressman, then was elected minority leader in his first term in the state Assembly. He came to Congress in 2007 and in the 2009-10 election cycle was chief recruiter of candidates, such as Congressman-elect Stephen Fincher from -- really -- Frog Jump, Tenn.
And Sean Duffy, the five-time world champion log climber (if you yawn you are not from northern Wisconsin) who forced Democratic Rep. David Obey, mighty chairman of the Appropriations Committee, not to seek a 22nd term. Duffy did so using ads McCarthy suggested, noting that Obey came to Congress before Woodstock and the moon landing occurred.
McCarthy is one of the three intelligent authors (with Virginia's Eric Cantor, 47, soon to be majority leader, and Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, 40, incoming chairman of the Budget Committee) of a book with the unintelligent title "Young Guns." They should be auditioning for the role of Cicero, not Shane.
McCarthy has never been in a majority, in Sacramento or Washington. His 13-member freshman class elected in the dreadful (for Republicans) year of 2006 was the smallest cohort of new Republicans since the House was expanded to 435 seats in 1913. But he favors running the House in a way that would dilute control by the majority's leaders, of which he is to be one, and would make life sweeter for the minority: He thinks every member should be empowered to offer amendments to spending bills. That expresses his view -- which also was the Founders', although they did not put it this way -- that "the Senate is the country club, we are the IHOP."
The reason Republicans think winning the presidency in 2012 is essential to fulfilling the promise of 2010 is that Barack Obama, former paladin of change, will veto change. So McCarthy understands that, pending a Republican president, much of Republican governance must occur down in the weeds of government -- in the Federal Register, the record of the regulations by which the executive branch exercises its will without much congressional supervision or circumscription.
But looking up from the weeds at the clouds, McCarthy has a dismaying desire to bring a "futurist" to speak to the Republican caucus each week. This betrays an unconservative faith in prophets -- pursuing prophecy is a recipe for forfeiting the present -- and is a depressing reminder of Speaker Newt Gingrich's swoon about Alvin Toffler's books "Future Shock" and "The Third Wave." Gingrich said of himself, oxymoronically, "I am a conservative futurist." Fascination with clairvoyants is, however, symptomatic of an unconservative hankering to surf supposed "waves" of history, and to put government in the service of, and society in harness to, Big Ideas.
McCarthy was born in January 1965, the month when Democrats, their ranks swollen by 38 House members and two senators because of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide, began the overreaching, aka the Great Society, that in 1966 produced losses of 47 House and three Senate seats.
The biggest threat to Republicans, who are currently flushed with victory, is, McCarthy thinks, the delusion that "they won the election. They didn't win anything." Rather, Democrats got themselves fired. McCarthy is too polite to say that the Democrats were terminated because they, like the president, misread the 2008 elections as much more than the electorate's pink slip for Republicans who were spendthrifts at home and blunderers abroad.
McCarthy says "this country likes to re-elect its presidents." But it did not re-elect one of the last two Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter). And the one it re-elected (Bill Clinton) had the advantage, as it turned out, of a bumptious new Republican House majority that made mistakes -- e.g., the government shutdown -- characteristic of people who, lacking the patience of politics, seek shortcuts to the future.
George Will's e-mail address is email@example.com.