03.31.09 6:07 AM ET
The GOP's House Hottie
Meghan McCain sizes up the youngest congressman, Aaron Schock, and his appeal to minorities, wise use of paparazzi, and what the best abs in D.C. can do for the future of the Republican Party.
The first time I ever heard of Congressman Aaron Schock, I was hanging out with some friends during a girls' night in, and one of my friends yelled to me from the other room: “Meghan, there’s a congressman on TMZ.” To which I answered: “Twenty bucks he’s a Democrat.” Well, I was wrong. Schock is not only a Republican, but currently fills the congressional district in Illinois that Abraham Lincoln once held. (This winter, Huffington Post readers elected him “Hottest Freshman,” garnering him an appearance on the Today show. A couple of weeks later, TMZ started stalking Schock.) In the era of President Obama pop-culture mania, how is one conservative young congressman becoming the Republican Party’s very own pop-culture politician—and someone even my most liberal friends in West Hollywood are asking me about?
At the end of the day, Congressman Schock is only three years older than me. Which means he can relay a message in ways my father never could.
It’s no coincidence the congressman-turned-TMZ hottie is the first congressman born in the 1980s; he’s a member of my own Generation Y. Schock is 27 years old and has been in politics since he was elected to the Peoria school board at age 19—making him the youngest person to ever serve on a school board in Illinois. “Ultimately, [running for school board] led me into the public service, feeling like I could make a difference and help improve my community,” Schock told me by phone last week. Four years later, he was elected to the state house; four years after that, he was elected to Congress.
Schock’s rapid rise to the national level is, if nothing else, interesting, especially given the serious soul-searching the Republican Party is experiencing. My father, had he won, would have been the oldest president in history elected to a first term. He was often criticized because of the generational gap between him and young voters. Schock should play his youth to his advantage, and so should the GOP. In a party stereotyped as one for old, white men, Schock has made a marked impression on my generation’s zeitgeist—even if it was unintentional.
But the most promising thing about the young congressman is his dual understanding of old-school conservative ideals and the GOP’s branding problem, if you will. When I asked him if he thought people like me (meaning more moderate Republicans) had a place in the party, Schock actually gave me an answer an average person could understand. “In order for us to be a majority party,” he said, “we need to be everywhere, with every demographic and every region of the country. We have to recognize Republican candidates in the Northeast are going to be different than candidates in the Midwest, who are going to look different than candidates on the West Coast. We have to first recognize the fundamental role of any representative, to represent his constituents, not a particular party. That doesn’t mean you take the party platform necessarily and throw it out the window, but also that you don’t become so exclusive to say ‘Well if this person doesn’t agree with me 100 percent, then they aren’t a true Republican.’” Unlike the response so many older Republicans have given me before—I’m young, I spent time at college in Manhattan, etc.—Schock approached the question honestly and realistically. Just the fact that he recognizes the problem the GOP has reaching out to my generation is in itself impressive.
Schock also insisted the party need not dismiss any one demographic simply because, historically, it has not voted Republican. “The sad part is that some people say ‘Why are you talking to young people? They don’t vote for us.’ Or ‘Why are you talking to African-Americans? They don’t vote for us’ or ‘Why are you talking to Latinos?’” he said. “Part of the problem is we’re not communicating with them. And part of our job is to take our message to everyone, and that doesn’t mean you go in and necessarily talk about everything. The Democrats are very smart in that they narrowed paths that appeal to voters. If you don’t communicate in a relevant way, people just zone you out.” I, for one, could not agree more with Schock. The Republican Party cannot move forward unless it stops focusing on the past. Almost every conservative recognizes the challenges we face reaching out to minorities and younger generations, but it is especially encouraging to hear someone my own age, who is sitting in Congress, address the problem head-on.
In fact, precisely because of his age, Schock has been able to better communicate with young people (a cause that is very close to my heart): whether it’s his decision not to run negative campaign ads, his ability to present issues in a way that applies specifically to my generation, or his use of the Internet. As someone who has been personally attacked when I invited political discourse, I firmly believe that talking about our differences—instead of mudslinging—can only bring people closer to the Republican Party and force them to take a second look at their candidates. “It’s up to you to give the case for why you’re the best candidate and why, from time to time, you and your opponent differ on policy issues or agenda items,” Schock explained. “But that does not mean you vilify them or trash their personality.” (Of course, he readily admits it may not be realistic to get away without mudslinging for the rest of his career. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I trust his approach will continue to be effective, and urge the GOP to follow his example.)
Schock also manages to communicate issues and messages to young people so that we understand what it means to the future of our generation. For example, in discussing the debt the Obama administration is currently creating, he told me, “It’s not going to be my colleagues in their fifties and sixties paying for it. It’s going be people of your and my generation. People who are in their twenties right now who are going to be saddled with the trillions of dollars he is proposing to spend.” As for reaching people at “colleges in Manhattan,” Schock says: “[Students] may tend to be more socially moderate, but I also believe they are aggressively pursuing higher education so they can earn more money and then provide a better way of life for their families. They don’t believe that everybody should be paid the same wage or everyone is entitled to drive the same car. We need to play to their competitive nature and belief in the capital system, which is how our party is fundamentally different from the Democrats.”
And even though he was surprised, and maybe slightly embarrassed, by his TMZ pictures, Schock understands the power that comes with gaining traction online. “It’s gotten a lot of people engaged about what I am doing out in Congress because they have been seeing me on the shows that they watch,” he confessed. “These are people that don’t typically watch Fox News or CNN or MSNBC or the evening news. They watch pop culture, but they are also voters.” After all, I would not have even thought to interview Schock had he not been on TMZ. (When I asked him how the shirtless pictures leaked in the first place, Schock told me they used to be on a friend’s MySpace page.)
At the end of the day, Congressman Schock is only three years older than me. Which means he can relay a message in ways my father never could. His lack of cynicism is refreshing—he offered a different, dare I say more modern, point of view than those who have tried to make me feel unwelcome in the GOP—yet according to the Washington Post he votes 91 percent of the time along party lines, a testament to his dedication to conservative ideals. Schock’s youth allows him to be more attached to my (our) generation, yet he has not oversaturated himself in the media, making him all the more intriguing. With that comes much power; I encourage Schock, and the Republican Party, to embrace his age and his political convictions to continue to communicate conservative ideals to a growing audience.
When I asked Schock who his favorite president was, he told me Teddy Roosevelt, because he was “a very progressive minded… but at the same time conservative-principled person.” I would venture to say Schock is of the same mind. If nothing else, in an Obama-crazed land, he is getting people’s attention and putting another fresh face at the center of what it is too often perceived as an old-news, boring party.
Meghan McCain is originally from Phoenix. She graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She previously wrote for Newsweek magazine and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.