The Old-Guard Conservative Facing Off Against Trump
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if Donald Trump isn’t the Republican choice for president, you might have this man to thank.
Donald J. Trump has accused him of “blatant shakedowns.” He’s thrown down millions to kick the real estate king off his high-flying chariot in Iowa. His group has taken much of the credit for Trump’s momentary slowdowns in the polls. Liberals love his work.
His name is David McIntosh, and he is a Republican. Specifically, a member of the Republican establishment who was once rumored to be replacing Newt Gingrich as House speaker (in the ’90s!), who toiled in the George H.W. Bush administration and who helped Ronald Reagan create the Economic Bill of Rights. Oh, how the right has split. McIntosh, a 57-year-old former congressman, is the man behind the conservative political action committee Club for Growth Action, which has made a mission of tackling Trump head-on, dropping $1 million on anti-Trump ads in Iowa with more to come. And Trump’s campaign is spending good breath on it: his lawyers have publicly threatened to sue the group over its ads asserting that the Donald is a fan of high taxes.
“Everyone’s been waiting for the sheriff to come in and take care of it” — it being Trump — “but everyone is afraid,” says Ben Berger, a political scientist at Swarthmore College. “No one else has done anything like this.” It all began six months ago, when Trump (whose campaign didn’t reply to our multiple requests for comment) announced his candidacy. McIntosh jumped into the rhetorical bashing, and fast, hounding the campaign in press releases as “not serious” and soon publishing a white paper on the Club for Growth site calling the current GOP front-runner (who’s polling at around 30 percent of the Republican electorate, according to a Washington Post poll) “the worst of Washington politicians.” But in person, McIntosh is calm (dare we say Carsonesque?) and an unlikely man to go head-to-head with the famously hotheaded debater. White-haired, with a soft smile, McIntosh tells me, “Candidly, I was more comfortable being behind the scenes.”
And behind the scenes he’s been since 2001, when his tenure as the congressman from Indiana’s second district expired. Though he made another run for another district three years ago, McIntosh has taken well to the establishment-conservative lifestyle that suits the formerly elected: time at a law firm, occasional advising gigs for conservative lobbying groups. And last year, he took the helm of Club for Growth, an equally classically conservative organization that loves free markets, low taxes and limited government. Past beneficiaries of the group’s funding include Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
McIntosh was an unlikely conservative. Born in Oakland, Calif., and raised in Indiana to a widowed mother, he was a bashful politics wonk and way too klutzy for sports. He was still calling himself a liberal Democrat when he landed at Yale and joined the Progressive Party within the Yale Political Union. But then things changed. He grew close to some of the campus conservatives, who tugged him rightward. For this he thanks his friend Lee Liberman Otis, who convinced him to take a summer to consider whether he was on the right side. He recalls telling her, “Well, I believe in freedom, and I’m Christian,” and her replying, “You’re not really a liberal, you’re a conservative.” By senior year, he was testing the conservative waters and was the president of the Political Union.
After school, the conservatism was confirmed. He spent a summer in Washington, D.C., where he met a group of friends with whom he’d later found the Federalist Society (along with Otis) — the well-known group devoted to defending a literal, textual interpretation of the Constitution. One such co-founder and buddy: Steven Calabresi, a Reagan and Bush staffer and clerk for Robert Bork. Another key character on the journey toward conservatism appeared in McIntosh’s path at the University of Chicago Law School: Antonin Scalia, his constitutional law professor. “He spent a lot of time saying you have to get the process right, even if the decision seems obvious or it seems like someone was clearly unjustly treated,” he says now.
One almost gets nostalgic hearing these names from a roster of old-guard conservatives. But McIntosh’s highest praise has come from “people who are more neutral, or liberal, even,” he says, uncomfortably. “I’m not sure it swayed anybody who was already supporting Donald Trump,” says Tim Albrecht, a GOP strategist in Iowa. It also might leave McIntosh burned and forgotten in a musty cabinet full o’ the olden days, if Trump wins: “Trump has this great ability to make mainstream people look bad, with an approach similar to ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue,’ ” says Swarthmore’s Berger.
But McIntosh insists on beating on: Come primary season, he plans to hit hard in early caucus states such as South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa. He knows he might lose this fight. Either way, we’ll find him toiling in the general election, far from the glamour of the presidential race, where his days will be filled with the grand attempt to haul up the next generation of conservatives in the Senate and the House. There’s always the long game.