The wheels of government turn slowly during a typical Thursday morning on the Hill, where the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is prepping legislation for the floor. The hearing attracts only 12 or so of the 75 members who might wish to weigh in on Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month or the Great Lakes Icebreaker Replacement Act. Nonetheless, freshman Democrat Tom Perriello of Virginia is there, catching up with the Democratic chair and the Republican ranking member, getting a laugh with some workaday crack. For the remainder of the meeting, Perriello sits in the front row, reading and adding his "aye" to the routinely unanimous voice votes. This is how you work your way up the ladder in Congress -- history is made by those who show up, and senior members remember their junior colleagues who do. All 256 Democrats in Congress are jockeying for the same precious few leadership positions, and a freshman like Perriello has to make his name with the daily grunt work of lawmaking.
Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois, another member of the committee, didn't show up at the hearing. Tedious policy-making is not the way to success for a junior member of the minority party; politicking is. And Schock has a flair for getting noticed. He's been accorded a generous share of glowing profiles, made appearances on the gossip show TMZ, and been voted the most attractive congressman by Huffington Post readers (Perriello was also in the running). As the youngest member of Congress at a time when the party is getting shellacked by the youth vote, Schock's name is dropped like a talisman by Republicans. House Minority Leader Eric Cantor has said that Schock "has already established himself as a leader," and even John McCain's daughter Meghan, recently in the media spotlight for her criticism of the GOP, calls him a "fresh face at the center of what . . . is too often perceived as an old-news, boring party."
Schock and Perriello share few characteristics beyond the ambition and charisma required to win elected office at a relatively young age. Perriello is the kind of candidate a Democratic political operative might have dreamed up -- born and raised in Albermarle County, Virginia, and a faithful Catholic with a progressive bent, he has a Yale Law degree and national-security experience earned with years of work in conflict zones like Darfur and Afghanistan. As an adviser to the special prosecutor in Sierra Leone, Perriello helped navigate the delicate politics of indicting former President Charles Taylor of Liberia for war crimes -- a former colleague says he had a more subtle understanding of local concerns than other international workers. But until November, Perriello hadn't held elected office. Schock, on the other hand, earned a seat on Peoria, Illinois' largest school board at age 19; in his second term the other members chose him for board president. At 23, he ran for the Illinois House against an incumbent and, in one of the state's most expensive legislative campaigns, won the district. One successful re-election later, Schock threw his hat into the ring to replace retiring Congressman Ray LaHood (now secretary of transportation), winning the general election handily after dispatching two Republican rivals in the primary. The business-friendly young congressman -- he's been a real-estate investor since he was 18 -- says that at the beginning of his career, he shared the solidly Republican views of his parents. Then the Democratic machine politics he encountered in Springfield pushed him toward a deeper conservatism.
In Congress, where the median age is 57, Perriello and Schock, at 34 and 27 respectively, are touted as rising stars in their parties. Perriello espouses a post-partisan idealism, but his constituency is at the far edge of the Democrats' big tent, and it's his task to pursue a progressive agenda without alienating voters who are more exasperated with Republicans than committed to liberalism. Schock, known in Illinois as a pragmatist willing to work with everybody, finds himself on the national stage as the bright face of a party staking its future on obstructing a popular president. He is charged with enlarging -- and enlivening -- the GOP coalition while at the same time staying true to his Republican district.
Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner may be setting the tone, but the newest members of Congress are more responsive to their constituents than those made safe by years of seniority and are therefore more sensitive to changing political dynamics. Each critical item on the president's agenda must be tested in the legislature, and the actions and reactions of freshmen like Perriello and Schock don't just make or break legislation today -- they offer a glimpse of the future of party politics. perriello landed his seat with a scarce margin of 735 votes -- less than half of 1 percent -- replacing Virgil Goode, a Democrat turned Republican who represented the district for a solid decade. Despite the fact that the New Jersey?sized stretch of southwest Virginia includes the liberal oasis of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, the district offers a 5 percent advantage to Republican candidates. Democrats first got the idea that they could snatch the seat after learning of Goode's connections to a corrupt government contractor. Goode aided them in their task when he became a little unhinged in his final term, attacking Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota for being sworn into office on the Quran, and making vociferous complaints about immigrants. (When I asked a reporter from a Virginia daily about Goode, he laughed and told me to ask the congressman about "anchor babies.")
Perriello made "conviction politics" the centerpiece of his campaign, writing a guest post on the liberal blog DownWithTyranny! in February 2008 that laid out his ethos. "I am going to win by offering a real progressive alternative and calling out in no uncertain terms why Goode and Bush make America less safe, make our jobs less secure, and simply don't get the world we live in," Perriello wrote. "This is not just about getting universal health care. It is about restoring a culture that is built on the principle that I am better off when my neighbor has health insurance." His campaign tithed 10 percent of its hours to charity work; he and his staff continue that effort by participating in a reading program at an elementary school near the Capitol.
The unashamed idealism attracted netroots attention and money -- Perriello raked in $250,000 in donations from Act Blue, the online progressive-fundraising nexus. Those small-donor contributions, combined with Perriello's traditional fundraising, a deep dedication to organizing, and several powerful debate performances, were enough to topple Goode. It didn't hurt that stars like Barack Obama and Sen. Mark Warner, perhaps the most popular politician in Virginia, were at the top of the ticket. Republican strategists asked about their prospects for retaking the seat in 2010 inevitably point out that Perriello won't have Obama's help next year in turning out core Democratic voters such as African Americans and college students. And, after all, John McCain won the district by three points. In an interview during his campaign, Perriello said he wanted to attract "McCain-Warner-Perriello" voters. Goode is still mulling an attempt to regain his former seat.
Perriello understands that he faces a tough re-election and has adopted the time-honored strategy of a politician who is a little further from the political center than his constituents: Solve problems. When asked how "conviction politics" works in government, he points to several Virginia politicians who are pragmatists, not idealists: Warner, Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Jim Webb. Perriello's passion may be foreign policy, but he's gone out of his way to gain seats on committees like Transportation and Veterans Affairs that focus more on his district's needs. Perriello still intends to work on U.S. policy on Darfur, but that's not exactly rural Virginia's top priority -- so it isn't his, either. The economic base in Perriello's district, tobacco farming and textile manufacturing, has been in distress for much longer than the current recession -- two towns suffer from unemployment rates in the high teens -- and he's dedicated to investing in aging infrastructure and attracting new industry, ideally green energy. To that end, he's an enthusiastic supporter of the president's stimulus plan and has designated an in-district staffer to help local government and businesses tap into the new federal funds.
Yet despite his professed admiration for Obama, Perriello hasn't voted for the more controversial parts of the president's agenda. Perriello owes his seat at least in part to party leadership (the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $651,656 on his election) and to Obama's campaign, but he needs to demonstrate his independence. He voted against a second round of bank-bailout funding and a bloated $410 billion appropriations bill. Those positions can be framed as populist and progressive, but it's harder to understand Perriello's April vote against the House budget resolution, which closely mirrored the ambitiously progressive budget proposed by the president. Perriello says he objected to the budget's high long-term deficit projections, but the bill included policies the congressman supported throughout his campaign, from green energy to health-care reform; even prominent members of the Blue Dogs, a conservative Democratic caucus, supported the legislation. Perriello's "no" vote seemed designed to appeal to moderate voters back home.
A week later I ask Perriello, as he drives through his district, whether he thinks the president's agenda should wait until the budget is closer to being balanced. "We will never balance the budget without bringing down the cost of health care. It'll never happen," he replies. "When it comes to education, we tend to get back dollars on the penny for the expenditures we make. Where I think we have to start distinguishing in budgets is investments for the taxpayer versus paying for expenditures. When the president swings for the fences, he tends to hit home runs, and I think that's what we need right now."
The president might be swinging for the fences, but Perriello is content to wait on deck, careful not to get too close to an issue likely to be demagogued by the opposition. (Indeed, when Republican political operatives hammered vulnerable Democrats on their budget votes the next day, Perriello wasn't targeted.) He had a chance to revise his stance when Congress voted on the final version of the budget agreed to by both the House and Senate. But Perriello wasn't even in Washington to cast his ballot. He was in his district, announcing nearly $30 million in stimulus funding to repair a local bridge. "This isn't just a new bridge into the city," Perriello told the audience. "I think it's a bridge into Danville's economic renaissance."
This is how Perriello earned his seat: by figuring out what his constituents wanted. "Tom worked his tail off," says Mayor Dave Norris of Charlottesville. "He spoke to the concerns of the district. He doesn't play the game. He wants to do what's right for his constituents."
Back at the Capitol, where Congress' punishing schedule wears on the young representative, Perriello is seeing first-hand that doing right by his constituents sometimes does require playing Washington games. Three developers who need assistance obtaining tax credits to build a resort on a mountain lake come to Perriello's office armed with a practiced sales pitch on the economic-development potential of their project and the need to lure national banks to invest in the rural district. "You walk into a bank and say something about a development loan, and they look at you like you're crazy," says Dennis Sparks, one of the partners.
They ask Perriello for a little "political clout" to get around the red tape surrounding development tax credits to finance projects in rural areas. The congressman tells them he will take a look at the project and consider helping after some due diligence. Afterward, he jokes a little awkwardly about the meeting, recognizing the tension between the need to get new jobs to his district and the fact that pressuring banks to give credit to developers might not be "conviction politics." When I ask him about it later, he says he doubts he can help the developers but uses the occasion to wax poetic about helping constituents access their Social Security benefits.
The congressman's strategy -- one that the Democratic leadership supports -- is to get comfortable in his district and, more important, get his district comfortable with his ideas. Perriello can be a progressive leader, but he must establish himself first.
If Perriello is riding the crest of a political wave, trying to keep his balance without getting swamped, then Aaron Schock is waiting to catch a break. Schock's seat is safe, as are most in a Republican caucus whittled down to its most dependable districts, but that's exactly the problem. Any ambitions he may have in the House or elsewhere demand a more powerful and popular Republican Party.
The GOP is desperate to build a larger coalition, and at least on paper, Schock is the right man for the job. He knows how to sell a conservative politics to not-so-conservative constituents. On Peoria's school board, Schock oversaw an inner-city district where 70 percent of students qualified as low-income; he worked well enough with local teachers to gain the endorsement of their union despite leading the district in cutting school budgets. His district in the state legislature was safely Democratic before he arrived and won a significant chunk of the black vote. In the Illinois House, long controlled by Democrats, he passed a number of broadly popular bills -- lowering the cost of prescriptions, increasing the punishment of criminals who prey on children, funding road construction -- by working with the Democratic leadership. "It's not easy for Republican legislators to get any meaningful legislation through [the Democrat-dominated state Assembly], and he was very successful at it," Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria says. Schock even earned an endorsement from one Democratic colleague, Susana Mendoza of Chicago, during his congressional run.
"Aaron introduced himself to every member of the House on both sides of the aisle, even though he was a target," Mendoza tells me. "When you do that, you build a relationship, and that's why he was very successful from his freshman year on. I don't know that I've ever voted against an Aaron Schock bill."
Schock campaigned as a conservative: When announcing his candidacy he encouraged providing nuclear weapons to Taiwan as a way to intimidate the Chinese (he soon disavowed this über-hawkish stance). Now in federal office, Schock continues to emphasize his rightward tendencies. He joined the Republican Study Committee, a caucus for conservative Republicans, and boasted to Human Events magazine that he had "one of the most conservative voting records in the state house . . . 100 percent pro-life, pro-family, 100 percent with the second amendment." Schock sides with his colleagues in voting against the president's agenda some 91 percent of the time. He supported the GOP's ridiculed alternate budget even as 38 other Republicans defected and the tax-cuts-only stimulus alternative when 31 of his colleagues sided with Democrats.
Schock is already mentioned as a future House leader or candidate for higher office, though he won't even be old enough to run for Senate in 2010. But Schock recently told a reporter at Chicago magazine that "things could change. In politics, you never know who's going to die, retire, or -- in Illinois -- get indicted." For just that reason, he has a lot of incentive to be the guy who gets things done with the Democrats and brings more people into the party. It's just hard to also be the guy who satisfies the conservative base.
Now, as House Republicans' strategy of obstruction has led their approval ratings to plummet but not detered President Obama's agenda (moderate Democrats in the Senate have played a larger role in that task), there is space for a new approach. "Conservatives, especially in the House, need to recognize that public policy will be made without them," says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, echoing similar public remarks by Minority Leader John Boehner. "The job of Republican conservatives in the House is, in full knowledge of that situation, to articulate clear alternatives."
Attempts to outline a new way for the GOP have not gained much traction, in part because the House leadership is unsettled. Boehner has lost much of his control over the direction of the caucus, and Minority Whip Eric Cantor is the driving force behind Republican strategy, such as it is. "I think the entire conference has a new mentality when it comes to this -- not being hierarchical any more," one Republican leadership aide tells me. "If members find something that works, and want to kick it out there, no one is going to discourage them from doing so. That is a different mind-set than was in place when we were in the majority, and probably even last term as well."
Schock knows how to make his voice heard among older colleagues. During his first term on the Peoria school board, he was put in charge of the school board's budget committee. While most institutions reserve financial influence for senior members, years of deficits led Schock's fellow board members to let their ambitious young colleague take a whack at the problem. In the House GOP, where a talent for plumbing the depths of public opinion is sorely lacking, Schock's colleagues might take a look at their own credibility deficit and hand him some more responsibility.
The difficulty for a Republican seeking a new strategy is that any deviation from the conservative line brings pointed attacks from the base. Representatives who dared to criticize Rush Limbaugh have been forced to retract their remarks, and the party's remaining moderates are alienated -- some to the point of defection (see Specter, Arlen). The GOP's outreach challenge is made flesh in Obama, the president from Schock's home state who makes a habit of engaging Republicans. "Obama and Aaron Schock have similar qualities in that they listen more than they talk," says Terry Knapp, the former president of the Peoria Teachers Union, who has met both men.
In February, Schock returned to his district on Air Force One, accompanying the president to an event at Caterpillar, Incorporated, the construction-equipment manufacturer headquartered in Peoria. Chief Executive Officer Jim Owens is a member of the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board and lent his company's name to Obama's efforts to drum up support for the stimulus package. Caterpillar's employees were the largest group of donors to Schock's campaign, giving some $65,000. At the event, the president introduced the newly minted congressman to his constituents.
"Aaron's still trying to make up his mind about our recovery package," Obama said. "We know that all of you are going to talk to him after our event, because he's a very talented young man. I've got great confidence in him to do the right thing for the people of Peoria." The "right thing" was a vote for the stimulus package, and Schock voted no, along with the rest of his Republican colleagues. He tells me that not one constituent came up to him after the event offering support for the bill. Schock says the president's legislation lacked sufficient infrastructure investment -- which doesn't explain his vote for the Republicans' plan, which had none at all. When Caterpillar announced layoffs a month later, Schock issued a statement blasting the stimulus as a failure.
"I understand why he didn't vote for the bill . . . [and] I don't think Aaron's position on the stimulus bill has hurt us in terms of getting stimulus dollars," says Mayor Ardis, also a Republican, quickly noting that he expects the seats Schock secured on committees, including Small Business and Oversight as well as Transportation and Infrastructure, will help the district. Schock already announced his request for a $36.4 million earmark to have the Army purchase bulldozers made by Caterpillar. In another sign of his influence within the GOP, Schock has been appointed a deputy whip, giving him the opportunity to meet with Cantor and other GOP leaders to hammer out the official party position on legislation -- whether, as with the stimulus, Republicans will unite in opposition, or as with the emergency tax on bonuses to American International Group executives, members will go their own way. Schock won't elaborate on the tenor of the meetings, but the GOP's lack of political success suggests that room exists for new ideas.
Schock has yet to reach across the aisle on anything other than commonsense amendments, but he's certainly engaging the members who can help him do so. He is on good terms with both Cantor and former Minority Whip Roy Blount, whom Cantor ousted. Schock recently joined Blount and Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who are known for their good working relationship, on a congressional delegation to South America. "Relationships are the key to everything" is Schock's legislative modus operandi.
If Schock is looking to broaden his party's coalition, Obama has a suggestion. He told voters in Peoria that Schock "has the chance to be in the mold of Bob Michel and Ray LaHood," the two previous congressmen from Schock's district who represent "a common-sense, Midwestern, can-do, bipartisan attitude." Michel was the Republican minority leader from 1981 to 1995, before the Gingrich revolution. Ironically, he chose to retire instead of compete in the 1994 elections, missing a strong chance to become speaker of the House. It would have been a history-changing moment -- imagine the 1990s rewritten without Gingrich as Bill Clinton's foil. At the time, Gingrich and his young turks were harsh critics of Michel's middle-route ways. Now, with Gingrich protégés like Cantor and Wisconsin's Paul Ryan still in power but the party significantly weaker, what about a new kind of revolution? Schock is no moderate, but he has the tools to question failed orthodoxies and promote a broader conservatism. No one has ever built a governing majority out of obstruction alone.
With a full 17 months before the next election, Schock and Perriello still have time to declare further independence from, or more fealty to, their respective parties. They'll probably have to do both, sometimes in the same hour, as they try to please both their party and their district without losing sight of their principles.
"Sometimes in this country we have put a lukewarm centrism as a substitute for independence," Perriello tells me during our discussion of his budget vote. "Independence is, I think, what people expect from us." Schock's constituents certainly do. "I was concerned about his being, as a freshman, being independent enough," Knapp says. "He will eventually become independent. Right now I'm just concerned about the fact that you have to take the party pledge, more or less. The Democrats do the same thing."
Like all politicians, they are equally pleased to eschew any partisan explanation for their behavior. Schock hopes that Americans "can recognize that many of the challenges we face are not Republican or Democrat problems, they're America's problems," while Perriello has written that the major issues of our day "should not be policies of right or left but questions of right or wrong."
Whatever they may say about the nonpartisan nature of America's challenges, both clearly take party politics into consideration when making decisions that will affect their careers. After all, as some of the least powerful members, their fortunes rise and fall with those of their party. Schock and congressional Republicans are betting that Obama's plans will fail of their own accord and that the president -- and allies that depend on him, like Perriello -- are forced from office by voters seeking any alternative.
Schock and Perriello are quick to praise each other and have met a few times to discuss education reform. Right now, neither man has much of a say in his own destiny. The two can only react to what comes from their leadership and the president. Taking those cues, the choices are simple. Perriello, like his colleagues, lives and dies by the president's agenda. Yet he can't afford to be seen as too tied to his party for fear of losing his right-tilting seat -- and these days, many of the Democrats' seats share that tilt. He's too smart to ignore the politics but too principled to go the full Blue Dog. Schock, on the other hand, could stay comfortably in his seat for years without too much introspection or choose to embrace the strains of coalition building.
Though it's not clear where Schock will focus his energies, he continues to raise his profile. On a Wednesday night during the spring congressional recess, a somewhat subdued Schock was featured on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. He gamely fielded the host's usual provocations and scored yet another national media hit.
Perriello didn't tune in to his colleague's TV appearance. He was in Afghanistan with members of the Veterans' Affairs committee, examining health-care delivery for wounded soldiers. The trip was a way to balance his interest in foreign affairs -- he has consulted on Afghanistan's justice system -- with his efforts to help the veterans who live in his district. At the very least, it was a more interesting task than hours of committee meetings. There would be many more of those waiting for him when he returned.