Congressmen challenge Washington Post’s account of ‘Young Guns’ as debt-showdown instigators

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Several members of Congress and conservative leaders have told The Daily Caller about significant inaccuracies in a recent Washington Post analysis of the origins of the 2011 debt ceiling showdown.

In a Sunday feature article, a team of Post reporters wrote that so-called “Young Guns” — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and budget committee chairman Paul Ryan — laid the groundwork for the debt ceiling fight years ago as a means to rebuild the GOP and take back political majorities in Washington.

The Post described the debt ceiling fight as “the natural outgrowth of a years-long effort by GOP recruiters to build a new majority and reverse the party’s fortunes.”

In what it calls the “origins of the debt showdown,” the Post concluded that the Republican Party’s “Young Guns” began orchestrating a politically motivated debt ceiling fight “before the economy collapsed in 2008, before the government bailouts that followed, before the tea party rose in response to push its anti-tax, anti-spending message.”

Members of Congress and conservative leaders have leapt up to dispute the Post’s analysis, with some calling it “conspiratorial” and “an attempt to blame somebody” for an unprecedented political near-meltdown.

“Ridiculous” is the word Rep. Jeff Landry used. Landry is a freshman Republican from Louisiana. “I’m sure that if you wanted to write an Oliver Stone novel, it’d be a good place to start,” Landry told TheDC in a phone interview. He added that while parts of what the Post published were true, it was missing crucial context. (RELATED: Tea party congressman flips Biden’s ‘terrorist’ label back on Democrats)

“I certainly believe they [the Young Guns] were plotting to get their majority back,” Landry said. “That’s [also] what I believe the Democrats are doing right now.”

Landry said the Post has the chain of cause-and-effect backwards. While Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan harnessed the energy of the tea party movement, he explained, they didn’t light the debt ceiling fire on their own.

“I think that because of their [McCarthy’s and Cantor’s] keen political sense and Ryan’s passion to fix our fiscal woes — that it gave them the ability to feel the nation’s pulse, not only from a conservative perspective but from independents and conservative Democrats as well … These were guys with sound fiscal conservative values. They were the right people for the right time.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a freshman Republican from Kansas, told TheDC that the Post’s narrative is “just an attempt by Washington insiders to suggest it was another Washington insider who somehow put together this political game.”

“That’s what Americans are tired of. For Harry Reid or whoever to suggest that game of politics – this is serious stuff,” Huelskamp said in a phone interview. “It happened principally because of Obama, but I’ve been very clear that we had eight years of $4 trillion of new debt under George W. Bush. At least the Post gets that part of it, but they forget the $4 trillion that Obama laid on there in two and a half years.”

Huelskamp insists that it’s “ridiculous” to suggest the GOP “Young Guns” pushed freshmen to drive the debt ceiling issue. Americans were raising concerns about America’s spiraling debt without any prompting from Washington, he says. “My district is heavily Republican and when I would go out and do town halls, everybody was saying that. Even some Democrats, and every Republican. They’re very concerned.”

Reached for comment, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told TheDC: “For the Washington Post to argue that this is an invented issue is silly.”

Norquist explained that the recent debt ceiling fight was politically magnified this year for a different reason than the one the Post “created.”

“Now, what was different about this time around is you have a president who doesn’t talk with or work with people outside of his own left-wing thinking, unless he has to,” Norquist said, before quipping: “Only the Washington Post could have missed the last election.”

FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe is another conservative leader who challenges the Post’s interpretation of recent political history inside the GOP. He told TheDC that he sees the Post’s analysis of the “origins of the debt showdown” as just another way for Democrats to attack Republicans who want to cut spending and restrict the size of the federal government. Kibbe said liberal partisans are “trying to trivialize a real concern.”

“Their assumption is that they can continue to get away with that by demagoguing against anyone who wants to cut spending,” Kibbe said. “They’re trying to blame the economic damage that the Obama administration has burdened the economy with on a political ploy,” Kibbe said.

RedState.com editor Erick Erickson said the Post’s reporters correctly transcribed a quote of his, but “totally missed the point” with the context surrounding it. “Fear has no business entering into your negotiations,” the Post quotes Erickson as having written. “There is no fallback. There is no alternative. Hold the freaking line.”

The Post framed this quote as an attack on GOP leadership for its “apparent willingness to compromise.” But Erickson told TheDC that the Post put his remarks in the wrong context.

“It had nothing to do with me not wanting to raise taxes,” he told TheDC, “and it had everything to do with me pointing out that the tea party movement was the only one that had a plan that would prevent the U.S. from losing its credit rating.”

Erickson says that hindsight shows he was factually correct as the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s lowered the United States rating from AAA to AA+ for the first time in history.

The Post’s lengthy analysis contended that Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan “scoured the country for like-minded conservatives who shared their uncompromising commitment to shrinking the federal government.” It goes on to say the Young Guns “showered” the “recruits with money and support and exhorted them to maintain a laser-like fiscal focus.”

Then suddenly in early 2010, the Post alleges, “talk of the ‘debt ceiling’ began to creep into the lexicon of some Young Gun candidates, first as a reaction to Congress yet again giving the nation the authority to borrow more money. But in time, it became a shorthand, their synonym for all that was wrong with Washington.”

The Post story featured a debt ceiling discussion Fox News’s Neil Cavuto had with one of those Young Gun candidates, now Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota. The Post presented that on-air conversation as an airing of the Young Guns’ new lexicon.

But Noem’s office insists that the cowgirl-turned-congresswoman has consistently regarded the debt ceiling as a real issue, not a campaign gimmick.

“Rep. Noem spoke out about our nation’s out-of-control spending and growing debt on the campaign trail last year because it was an issue South Dakotans cared about,” Noem spokesman Josh Shields told TheDC. “Most South Dakota families live within their means and the state government is constitutionally required to do so, South Dakotans don’t understand why Washington thinks they should operate under a different set of rules.”

Shields added: “Rep. Noem has focused on the debt issue because it’s the right thing for our country, not because of any coordinated campaign effort.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a freshman from Kansas who benefited from the Young Guns programs, told TheDC in a phone interview that GOP leadership in Washington never mentioned the debt ceiling to him. “I was definitely in touch with the Republican leadership during my campaign and they were definitely trying to facilitate my efforts [to get elected], there’s no doubt about that,” Pompeo said. “In no discussion with any elected leader about anything coming up did the debt ceiling ever come up at all.”

Pompeo thinks the Post’s theme, an argument that Cantor, McCarthy and Ryan promulgated the debt ceiling issue among freshmen members, is factually inaccurate and “conspiratorial.”

“I think there’s a much less conspiracy-oriented theory about where this all came from,” Pompeo said. “It came from the American people. I heard about this set of issues every day and I was out there at ‘meet and greets’ and talking to folks every day for 22 months during my campaign.”

Pompeo adds that the only help GOP leadership provided him during his campaign was logistical information, like “how a campaign ought to be run, how many signs ought to be purchased, what a good deal on bumper stickers was.” He said the Young Guns didn’t provide any talking points, issue-oriented information or policy-based material. “I think the folks who were a part of the Young Guns program already had the deep belief that got them up to go run – I can certainly say that for myself,” Pompeo said. “The policy perspective of liberty and limited government is something that predated and was disconnected from my involvement in Young Guns.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who was among the first candidates the Young Guns chose to support in the 2010 elections, echoed Pompeo’s comments. Kinzinger’s spokesperson confirmed that neither Cantor, McCarthy nor Ryan approached or coached Kinzinger about the debt ceiling while he was a candidate. The spokesperson also said the trio of GOP leaders did not try to convince Kinzinger to highlight the debt ceiling issue during his candidacy.

A spokeswoman for Cantor describes the “Young Guns movement” differently.

“The Young Guns movement was started by Majority Leader Cantor, Whip McCarthy, and Chairman Ryan to recruit men and women to come to Washington — not to advance their political careers, but to get America back on track by advancing the cause of a fiscally responsible government that expands economic freedom and opportunity,” Cantor’s spokeswoman Laena Fallon told The Daily Caller.

“Changing the way Washington works is like turning around an aircraft carrier — it takes some time,” Fallon continued. “Yet House Republicans are making incremental progress by finally beginning to stop Washington from spending money that it doesn’t have in spite of a Democratic controlled Senate and White House.”

A McCarthy spokeswoman echoes Fallon’s sentiments. “The election last year was about changing business as usual in Washington, and we sought candidates willing to make the tough decisions to do what was in the best interest of the country above all else, and that is precisely what we’ve set out to do,” McCarthy spokeswoman Erica Elliott told TheDC.

“The Obama Administration started this Congress by demanding tax increases on American families and a blank check debt limit increase,” she insisted. “Instead, House Republicans fought to keep tax rates at their current level and cut trillions of dollars.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) hits a similar note. “House Republicans candidates in 2010 shared a common theme of running to halt the failure of Democrat leadership and turnaround our economy from their disastrous fiscal policies,” NRCC spokesman John Randall told TheDC. “This included reducing government spending and living within our means.”

The Post’s analysis drove the point that a high-profile, high-stakes political battle over raising the debt ceiling is unprecedented in Washington, and that it has been a routine part of government business in the past. That’s true, ATR’s Norquist counters: It’s the political climate President Barack Obama has created that made the fight necessary. (RELATED: Grover Norquist fires back at David Brooks)

Norquist said the 2011 debt ceiling debate was one of the “few levers” Republicans could use to push Obama to address U.S. fiscal policy in a meaningful way. Others include the continuing resolution that Congress passed in the spring to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year, and the 2012 budget. “You know that dog who poops on the floor and you push his face in it and say ‘don’t do that’?,” Norquist said. “The only time you could get this president and force him to sit down and have a talk with the country was to get his [attention on the] debt ceiling.”

Obama’s reluctance to reach across the aisle, Norquist said, is the primary reason conservatives had to use the debt ceiling as leverage. “They used to have to do that [talk about fiscal issues], because you had to do a budget every year,” he said. “This president hasn’t found that necessary. You used to have to do appropriations bills. This president hasn’t been doing that.”

Norquist adds that liberals and Democrats had their own debt-ceiling “plot” too. “That was that Harry Reid said ‘don’t raise the debt ceiling when the Democrats are in charge; what you must do is force the Republicans to put their fingerprints on the debt ceiling,’” Norquist told TheDC.

He explained that Reid, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama didn’t attempt to raise the debt ceiling in the fall of 2010 when the GOP was poised to reclaim a House majority.

“They [Democrats] are mad because their plan backfired on them. They thought they could force the Republicans into passing a tax increase and putting their fingerprints on a debt ceiling increase.”

RedState.com’s Erickson points to comments Reid made to Politico on December 8, 2010. Reid said then that he would like to “push off raising the debt ceiling until next year,” because the GOP would have to weigh in. “Let the Republicans have some buy-in on the debt. They’re going to have a majority in the House. I don’t think it should be when we have a heavily Democratic Senate, heavily Democratic House and a Democratic president.”

Erickson says Reid’s Politico interview disproves the Washington Post’s analysis, as no one could have anticipated a 2011 debt ceiling fight until Reid telegraphed his intention to aoid staging the showdown in late 2010. “The debt ceiling vote didn’t have to take place this year,” Erickson said. “Harry Reid decided to do it. You can’t say that this was a campaign issue, because no one knew it was even going to be an issue.”

The Post also implies that GOP House leadership is now politically and financially supporting reelection bids of House freshmen who held the line in the debt ceiling talks.

“The House leadership, meanwhile, has already started to focus on maintaining its majority,” the Post concludes. “Cantor and McCarthy, through their PACs, have together bestowed nearly $440,000 in early contributions to fellow conservatives, according to campaign financing reports. Freshmen have received most of their largess: Of a combined 69 contributions made, 52 have gone to newcomers. [House Speaker John] Boehner’s PAC hasn’t made as many donations, contributing $170,000 to 20 of the freshmen, and 23 candidates overall, the reports show.”

Rep. Landry said the Post’s attempt to tie GOP leadership PAC donations to House freshmen’s support of debt ceiling negotiations is factually inaccurate. “To me, it’s a natural progression of what they’d do anyhow,” Landry he told TheDC.

Erickson adds that it’s nonsensical to suggest there’s a tie between political donations from leadership PACs and congreemen’s debt ceiling rhetoric: “They didn’t need money to talk about the debt ceiling. These guys were swept in a movement of tea party activists who are deeply concerned about the debt of the nation. It’s not exactly something they’d have to be bribed to talk about.”

The Post claims a debt ceiling “showdown” plot was hatched in January 2009 during a meeting at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. At that meeting, the Post alleges, Cantor, McCarthy, Ryan and several others Republicans in attendance made the political determination to use the debt ceiling as leverage.

Kibbe couldn’t disagree more. The Post, he told TheDC, “ignored the fact that the tea party has been mobilizing against too much debt and too much spending, going all the way back to 2008. This was not an uprising manufactured by Republicans. This was a real grassroots that’s opposed to both Republicans and Democrats overspending.”

Erickson said he thinks the reason the Post would run a story like that is “to come up with a unified theory of everything.”

But, Erickson warns, “there is no such thing as a unified theory of everything.”

The Post dismisses claims that its reporting about the genesis of the 2011 debt ceiling fight was  inaccurate. “We’ve carefully reviewed your points and we stand by what we reported,” Post editor Marcus Brauchli said in an email to TheDC. “We described the debt limit showdown as a natural outgrowth of events that began in 2008. You seem to have a viewpoint on the events we described, but the substance of your concerns is addressed in our story.”