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Guitar Man

Thaddeus McCotter steps out as an unlikely Republican leader.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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Thaddeus McCotter is bored. His answers for what ails the Republican Party and the reasons he gives for why it came to its current minority status on Capitol Hill are thoughtful, even insightful. But this isn't new territory for the four-term Michigan Republican. He responds to my questions with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been asked to repeat an old story for the hundredth time.

Until I ask him about his guitar. "George Harrison once told an interviewer that he picked up his first guitar and played it until his fingers bled," McCotter says. "His mother asked him what he was doing and he said, 'I'm learning how to play guitar.'" Does McCotter favor electric or acoustic? "Same six strings," he replies matter-of-factly.

Most congressional offices are filled with mementos from the district and pictures of the congressman with important government officials. Republicans tend to favor photographs of Ronald Reagan and, until about 2005, George W. Bush. McCotter's office has dark green walls and a picture of John Lennon hanging over his desk. There's also a guitar, of course. It resembles a young rock fan's bedroom as much as a quiet place to write constituent letters.

Thad McCotter is chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, a leadership position from which he will play a role in shaping the GOP congressional agenda. When the tall, lanky congressman isn't jamming with the bipartisan rock band called the Second Amendments -- he is known for being able to play Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" behind his back-- he is being received like a rock star on a growing number of offbeat television and radio talk shows.

Dennis Miller is a McCotter fan -- or likes "the cut of his jib," as he puts it -- and so is Greg Gutfeld, since the congressman's dry sense of humor is a good fit for Red Eye, Gutfeld's late-night show on Fox. Shortly after Barack Obama took office, Gutfeld asked McCotter the familiar question about whether the GOP was in "disarray." His reply was typical McCotter, with carefully wielded pop culture references sending his co-panelists into guffaws as he dutifully pressed his party's case.

"Well, when we were growing up we used to look at the Flock of Seagulls' hair and we'd say that looks in disarray, but there was a whole lot of work that went into sculpting that -- if not the music itself," McCotter quipped. "It may appear to be disorderly, but we are going through a very intense period of reorganization, restructuring the Republican Party, we're starting to see the unity come back, the message come back, the principles be expressed again, and we think you're going to be very happy."

McCOTTER IS A FUNNY GUY, but he's also a serious man. The 44-year-old is as quick to quote Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Röpke, or even Hilaire Belloc as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, an unusual combination of references, to put it mildly. "I think he is one of the few members of Congress who can quote philosophers, scholars, and theologians but still relate to blue-collar,working-class people," says Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican friendly with McCotter. "He has a total sense of the ridiculous that allows him to laugh at himself, us, and the party but he takes his job very seriously."

McCotter's main job is representing Michigan's 11th district, attending to the "all politics is local" adage he suggests too many Republicans forgot in the run-up to the 2006 and 2008 elections. It's a heavily blue-collar district with its share of auto workers and union members. McCotter's hometown, Livonia -- his mother was the city clerk -- is west of northwest Detroit. Barack Obama carried it with 54 percent of the vote in 2008; George W. Bush won it with 53 percent in 2004 and just 51 percent in 2000.

A graduate of Detroit's Catholic Central High School, where he played football, McCotter went on to receive his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Detroit. He was elected to the Wayne County Commission in 1992 at just 27. There he led the charge to change the county's charter to force a new tax to be approved by two-thirds of commissioners and 60 percent of the voters. Elected to the state senate in 1998, McCotter launched a political career based on appealing to traditional area Republicans and blue-collar conservatives.

"People forget that Ronald Reagan was a union worker," says McCotter. "I showed a conservative friend a speech he delivered to a union as president and my friend was stunned at how well he could relate to that audience." Despite the competitive nature of his district McCotter has compiled a strongly conservative voting record: pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, strong on defense, for tax cuts, and against the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package -- the last a popular Democratic talking point against him in an area of high unemployment.

But he does occasionally break with his party to represent his district's needs, such as when he strongly supported aid to the embattled automotive industry. "He understands that not every part of the country is identical," says King. "You can't have absolute economic views, even though on 90 to 95 percent of issues he is as strong of an economic conservative as they come. He is more willing to give good, culturally conservative people a break so they can get back on their feet and feed their families."

McCOTTER'S VISION EXTENDS FAR BEYOND his congressional district, however. He methodically walks through a five-point summary of the fundamental principles he says should guide the Republican Party: "Our liberty is from God not the government; our sovereignty rests in our souls not the soil; our security is through strength not surrender; our prosperity is from the private sector not the public sector; and our truths are self-evident, not relative."

He has a similarly comprehensive view of the challenges facing the nation. "In their time, the Greatest Generation surmounted four transformational challenges: the social, economic, and political upheavals of industrialization; a global war against evil enemies; the Soviet Union's strategic threat and rival model of governance; and whether the self-evident truths our nation is based on applied to everyone without regard to race," McCotter says, without once saying "um" or pausing to collect his thoughts. "In our time, we must face and transcend four transformational challenges: the social, economic, and political upheavals of globalization; a global war against evil enemies; Communist China's strategic threat and rival model of governance; whether we remain a nation based on self-evident truths or moral relativism."

McCotter chastises "cosmopolitan conservatives" he says forget "we are a country, a people, not just an economy." His is a conservatism informed by his Catholicism as much as the canons of free market capitalism. McCotter muses that some Republicans are too ideological about immigration and trade policy. Asked if this makes him a Kirkian traditionalist, he demurs: "I don't get into all that. I'm a Republican."

On immigration, McCotter defends the House Republicans' enforcement-first position as a prerequisite for defending American sovereignty. But he acknowledges that the GOP needs to be more careful in how this viewpoint is expressed, so as not to alienate culturally conservative Hispanic voters. "I don't think my Mexican wife thinks I'm a racist," he says. "I don't think my half-Mexican children think I'm a racist. My father-in-law gets this issue. It's a mistake to treat Hispanics as a monolithic group, represented by La Raza."

It would also be a mistake to classify McCotter's conservatism as Buchananite on the basis of these observations. There are circumstances in which he would back more legal immigration from people fleeing tyranny and oppression, as opposed to adding cheap labor to the available pool of workers. "We're not looking for workers," he says. "We're looking for Americans." While McCotter is not a free-trade absolutist, he did call for lifting President Bush's steel tariffs (many of his constituents work in steel-using industries).

NOWHERE IS THE DISTINCTION CLEARER than on foreign policy. McCotter is a staunch proponent of showing a firm hand to tyrannical governments abroad, though he was not a knee-jerk supporter of the Bush administration's handling of international affairs. While he favored regime change in Iraq, he does not believe the war was handled entirely correctly. "You can't just drop a Green Zone in the middle of the country to administer the Great Society," he says. In June 2006, McCotter voted "present" on a Republican resolution expressing support for the war and rejecting a timetable for withdrawal because it did not offer a full assessment of the "situation, stakes, and strategy for victory in the battle for Iraq and the overarching War on Terror."

"In the Cold War, President Reagan had the moral courage to call Communist Russia an 'evil empire,'  " McCotter said at the time. "In the War on Terror, the U.S. House must have the moral courage to call al Qaeda our enemy." He blasted the resolution as "strategically nebulous, morally obtuse, and woefully inadequate."

There is nothing nebulous about McCotter's impassioned denunciations of the "misogynistic, murderous regime" in Tehran after the disputed Iranian presidential election. "Your referendum has been held and you have failed your test...You have no legitimacy either in the eyes of the Iranian people or in the eyes of the civilized world. You are doomed by your own hands, and it is but a matter of time until your regime collapses and the Iranian people breathe free."

Taking a page from the anti-Communists who called attention to the Soviets' victims, McCotter has often given his House floor speeches denouncing Iran while standing next to pictures of those slain by Tehran -- victims who tend to be young women. One was Taraneh Mousav. "She was arrested near Ghoba Mosque, where she was on her way to attend hairdressing college," McCotter recounted in a floor speech. "After her arrest, she was raped, sodomized, and tortured by her captors, taken to a hospital in a coma, and it was there that she died. Upon her death, her body was removed to the outskirts of Karaj Qasim where, to prevent an autopsy, it was burned."

Taraneh Mousav isn't alone. McCotter gave a moving presentation on the House floor about another young woman. "Her name was Neda. In Farsi, it means 'the voice,'" he said. "True to her name, she loved music; sought freedom; and she's dead -- shot down in the streets by the Iranian regime's state-sanctioned murderers. She must not have died in vain." McCotter then turned his ire toward the head of his own government.

McCotter blasted President Obama's "contradictory statements of support and appeasement" and " 'post-American' foreign policy." He continued: "As for the claim that American 'meddling' in support of the demonstrators plays into the mullahs' hands, the Iranian regime will claim this regardless, for as our president noted, 'That's what they do.'" McCotter said emphatically, "what matters is not what the regime says about America, but what the demonstrators think about America." He concluded: "As Americans, we must seize this moment and help Iranians seize their freedom. That's what we do."

"There weren't a lot of Republicans down there giving those kinds of speeches either," McCotter acknowledges. "There's a lot of focus on the economy and domestic issues right now. I'm from Michigan -- I get that. But this is an area where we need to show leadership too." He points out that Ronald Reagan was a leader who could make this message clear to the American people, while also drawing a stark dividing line between our Russian friends and our enemy in the Soviet government.

CONGRESSMAN PAT TIBERI of Ohio says that McCotter represents an important part of the Reagan coalition that the GOP is going to have to win again to be a successful national party. "When my dad voted for Ronald Reagan, it was the first Republican he ever voted for," Tiberi says. "He was a Catholic, a union worker, an immigrant. We need to reach voters like that who share our values but identify with the Democrats for demographic reasons." McCotter, he says, "clearly and confidently communicates what he believes" in a way that "speaks to them."

One reason, says Congressman King, is that unlike some other Republicans he is one of those voters. "Thad has a strong religious compass," King explains. "But that doesn't keep him from being understanding of other people's day-to-day human failings." McCotter's sense of voters who might not agree with every item in a conservative think tank white paper "really gives us an opportunity to win in the industrial states."

McCotter is not without conservative critics. Though he was the first Republican to come out against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, calling it "American socialism," stricter free marketers have panned his votes for aid to the auto industry. John Zmirak, author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, thinks the congressman would benefit from paying closer attention to some of his intellectual heroes. "Wilhelm Röpke wrote during the Cold War, and favored a policy of firm containment of the Soviet Union, whose ideology he referred to as a 'pseudo-Islam,' " says Zmirak. "However, he was never aligned with the advocates of 'rollback,' who were willing to risk nuclear war rather than wait out the slow, inevitable collapse of an economic system that violated human nature." In today's strategic situation, Zmirak contends, a "Röpke-style response" to radical Islam and Communist China would focus more on limited counterterrorism, border security, and restoration of the Afghan monarchy rather than the Bush Doctrine.

But McCotter is unapologetic. "I've seen the game of trying to purge Republicans of those who are 'RINOs' or not pure enough," he says. "I have one question: How'd that work out for us?" In an article for Human Events, McCotter sounded the same theme: "All Republicans must work within the party to unite, expand, and renew it; not work outside it to purge, deplete, and 'recreate' it in one's arbitrary image." Asked his opinion of the Club for Growth -- which has supported primary challenges against GOP moderates -- McCotter says simply, "They are an interest group doing what an interest group is supposed to do. A political party is different."

Democrats hope they can purge McCotter in the next election. He has been reelected by solid but not overwhelming margins against underfunded opponents -- with 51.4 percent of the vote, he won by six points in 2008 and has yet to break 60 percent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has claimed to be targeting McCotter in 2010. The Swing State Project ranks him fifth on its "vulnerability index," behind Republicans representing such Democratic districts as Joseph Cao's in Louisiana. For his part, McCotter considers it "presumptuous" to predict the voting behavior of the "people I work for."

McCotter's admirers see him not as an endangered species but a harbinger of things to come. "Here's a guy who's bright, funny, and refreshing," says Tiberi. "He likes rock music, he's well read, he can relate to people you don't think of as being Republicans. It challenges people's perceptions of what a Republican is supposed to be." A rock-n-roller stuck in a Republican's body, McCotter seems to relish the challenge. Before our interview ends, he turns the tables by asking me why I never learned to play guitar. Not getting a satisfactory answer, the congressman says, "It's not too late."

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.