Kathryn Lopez

In between recent meetings on Capitol Hill, a candidate and his campaign manager were talking about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. "It's all there," in the declaration, the candidate said, looking up from inside his cab to see they were passing the National Archives. He believes every policy debate on the Hill comes down to the same principles of freedom declared in 1776. The 52-year-old conservative Republican candidate for Congress was as excited by the moment as a well-studied schoolboy, and the prospect of going to Washington in November to fight for the freedoms in that document have him "optimistic" about the future of our country. Even in a Pelosi-Reid Congress.

Too good to be true? I don't blame you for being skeptical. But as a sometimes-DC-er who still gets a thrill stepping off Amtrak and seeing the Capitol building, I'm buying. Tom McClintock, after all, is no political neophyte. He's no Pollyanna. How can he be? He's a conservative Republican serving in the California legislature and a budget-balancing thorn in a liberal Republican's side. Now, as it happens, McClintock's district is more McClintock than it is California; as National Journal has put it, the Mother Lode section of one of his counties (one of the fastest-growing in the state), "In 2004 ... cast 370,000 votes and voted 61 percent for George W. Bush -- a percentage closer to Idaho's than California's. The culture here could not be more different than what prevails less than 50 miles away in the Bay Area."

For this reason, the Republican primary in McClintock's 4th Congressional District in May was able to be a bellwether for Republicans. Contesting for the retiring Congressman John Doolittle's seat, McClintock was a little bit John McCain, pounding away at bad congressional spending and earmarks, and a whole lot of back-to-basics conservatism.

McClintock last garnered national attention when he ran for governor during the 2003 recall election as the conservative in the race. Conservative concerns about Schwarzenegger have proven well-placed, though McClintock sees the recall itself, and some of the initial Arnold reforms, as a step in the right (and Right) direction. McClintock predicts that if running the right way -- as a government-should-not-be-burdensome candidate -- continues, a pro-life candidate could win statewide in the Golden State before long. "When you scratch the surface," McClintock said in a recent interview with National Review, "California is still Reagan country."

Why go to Washington then? Why not keep running statewide? Because McClintock believes that Washington needs an infusion of people who remember principles first. People who believe, as he does, that the Reagan Revolution was not an end, but, as he puts it, a "pre-revolution." John Doolittle went to Congress as part of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. And he's leaving Congress under taint of family involvement with Jack Abramoff, and walking away from his tenure on the powerful House Appropriations Committee having declared that the committee has been a much more harmonious place to be than he would have expected. He's told the Wall Street Journal's John Fund: "It's because we so often have the same priorities." Spending. Bringing home the bacon... Their congressman, he argues, went to Washington for one reason and became part of a corrupt culture there. It's a frustration McClintock hears a lot.

For McClintock, it's about not being corrupted by power but remembering that limited government works. Campaigning around his district in a race against Democrat Charlie Brown, McClintock says the issues that resonate most with his constituents are securing the borders, spending and reducing the burdens of government. When a colleague of mine comments that his "leave us alone" talk is making her nostalgic for the Reagan era, McClintock's campaign manager, John Feliz, notes, the plan is to go "back to the future."

A Fred Thompson supporter in the primaries, McClintock points out that McCain wasn't his first choice. "He wasn't my second choice either. Or my third. Or my fourth. Or my fifth. Or my sixth. Or my seventh." Still, he says, "for those who believe in the principle of free government," he claims, "earmarks resonate."

The issue that doesn't resonate in his race is the war on terror, and it's a reminder of challenges ahead for both "No Surrender" McCain, who some have recently argued, should run on his commitment to not prematurely withdraw from Iraq. In a country where 3,000 people were murdered this decade on our own soil, California doesn't feel like it's at war. Without being self-consciously anti-Bush, part of the reason, McClintock argues, is we never formally declared war. A big part of the reason is a failed "call to action." In the immediate days after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, McClintock remembers, Americans were galvanized. We were ready for marching orders. "We were told to go shopping," to support the economy. That, he says, was "not exactly Churchillian."

Having spent over an hour with him recently, McClintock sounds like a conservative making his way with basic, tried-and-true principles, in a conservative movement with no clear leader. A former fellow at the Claremont Institute, a conservative California think tank, McClintock is not down about current conservative doldrums. (McCain was the eighth choice of more than McClintock.) These things, he says, go in cycles.

"Republican voters have not abandoned conservative principles but are concerned that their leaders have." He adds, "If you don't stand for anything, don't be surprised if nobody votes for you." And so he stood, and beat his main competition, former Congressman Doug Ose, in the May primary with 54 percent of the vote. And so he stands, one of the potential leaders of the conservative comeback. If not in a big way this fall, it will come, McClintock is certain. Freedom

-- limited government, pushbacks against government attacks on religion and speech and marriage -- will ring.


Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.