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Heirs of Reagan reshape Congress

Many of the GOP freshmen formed their views when their hero was president.

March 17, 2011|Kathleen Hennessey

WASHINGTON — The thing Rep. Scott DesJarlais remembers most about the energy crisis of 1979 is collecting extra gas money from his buddies. The Republican from Tennessee was 15.

When President Reagan was renominated by his party in 1984, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) was outside the Dallas convention center with his friends, wishing he was a few years older so he could vote for the man he already idolized.

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) considered himself a Democrat when he went to college in 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency. By the end of Clinton's second term, Gardner was a small-government Republican, a law student and president of the conservative Federalist Society.

When voters elected 87 new GOP members to the House last year, they chose a crop of young, conservative politicians -- more than half in their 30s and 40s -- whose perspective differs dramatically from many of their older colleagues. Their arrival has sped up the generational shift in Congress, where baby boomers and their elders are gradually being replaced by members of Generation X.

These politicians belong to the first modern generation of Americans not expected to earn more money than their parents. It's a generation defined by their distrust in institutions and, for many, a deference to markets. They've never been drafted to go to war and they've rarely heard a politician make the case that the federal government can provide the cure for the nation's ills. Many of the young Republicans formed their lasting political notions during the presidency of a man who was born 100 years before they were sworn in. The average age of the GOP freshman is 47, meaning many probably cast their first presidential vote when Reagan was reelected in 1984.

"These are the children of Reagan," said Henry Brady, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.

In their two months in office, this group of young lawmakers has established itself as a distinct and powerful force in the newly Republican-controlled House. Their focus on a drastic reduction in federal spending and their bravado in bucking party leaders has driven the agenda in that chamber.

When House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) proposed a series of budget cuts last month, the freshman class pushed him to up the ante and cut more deeply.

Then, this week, dozens of conservatives voted against a stopgap budget bill backed by Boehner to stave off a government shutdown. Although most of the freshmen voted with Boehner, as a group they are clearly impatient with the pace of the cuts and provided roughly half of the Republican votes against the bill.

"Systemic change to our spending habits is required, and we do not have the luxury of time," freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said of his "no" vote.

Where it all is going is still unclear, but the answer may be found in the generational traits that unite the freshman GOP class.

The new Republican House members are 10 years younger, on average, than the chamber as a whole, and 15 years younger than the members of the Senate, historically a more gray-haired institution.

The last comparable generational shift in Congress occurred in 1974, when a class of 75 Democrats was elected following President Nixon's resignation. That group included the first flood of early baby boomers, a group that shared a pro-reform agenda and an antiwar zeal.

Many of them proved to have significant staying power, moved up through the leadership ranks and changed the way Congress operated.

Though demographers differ on where precisely one generation ends and another begins, many describe Gen-Xers as those who were born between the early 1960s and early 1980s.

With this group, early awareness of Vietnam and Watergate -- or learning about it later -- helped develop a perspective that America is endangered, said Neil Howe, a leading expert on generations.

"There is a sense of living near the edge and living near disaster and breakdown. That is still there today," Howe said, noting the way that many of the GOP freshmen discuss the current fiscal situation in the U.S.

Though plenty of Gen-Xers became Democrats -- President Obama at 49 just ekes in under Howe's definition -- the current crop of Gen X politicians leans to the right, according to Howe's research.

These young conservatives did not relate to the stereotypical portrait of the scruffy Gen X slacker in plaid. Instead, they identified with another cultural model.

"People joked that I was an Alex P. Keaton when I was a kid," said New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, 40, referencing Michael J. Fox's briefcase-toting young Republican character in the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties." "I was reading the Wall Street Journal at a young age. I was engaged in the markets."

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