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David McIntosh on leading the Club for Growth

How he got from small-town Indiana to the center of politics and what he’s going to do next

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (left) talks with David McIntosh at the Club for Growth winter economic conference in Palm Beach, Fla. Associated Press/Photo by Joe Skipper

David McIntosh on leading the Club for Growth

In the 1980s and ’90s, David McIntosh, now the president of the Club for Growth, was a rising young star in the Republican Party. After graduating from Yale and the University of Chicago Law School, he went to work in the Reagan administration. He served as special assistant to the attorney general and then as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan himself. When George H.W. Bush became president, McIntosh went to work for the vice president and fellow Indianan, Dan Quayle. He later served in Congress and now is president of the Club for Growth. I had this conversation with him in his office in Washington, D.C.

Tell me a little about Club for Growth. The Club for Growth is really the premier policy and political entity supporting economic conservatism, economic liberty, constitutional limited government, and pro-growth policies. We advocate for those, hence the Club for Growth. We have an affiliated political action committee that raises money and supports candidates who are champions of those issues. We supported Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. We support Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and more recently Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

You’re fairly new here at Club for Growth. Tell me your vision, your marching orders from your board, your passion as president. I started at the first of the year. I feel in a personal sense it’s what God’s prepared me to do in my life, and it’s to be a servant to others who are going to be in public life and to be someone who discerns who are good leaders that should be helped.

The board has told me, David, we appreciate who you are, but remember we are an economic conservative group, so we’re not asking you to not follow your faith, but we’re not looking for candidates who are social conservatives or conservatives in national security. We focus on economic issues. I shared with them, while I will be true to my faith, and you know my record in public life on those issues, I understand my assignment as president of the club is to focus on those economic issues, and I’m delighted to do it.

Your budget is anywhere from $5 to 10 million a year, maybe a little bit more some years because of the election cycles. That is a lot of money, but by Washington standards, it’s not. How do you get the most bang for the buck? That’s about our budget for the club, which is a not-for-profit. We have another probably $15 to $25 million in a two-year cycle that we bring to the campaigns, but even that, when they talk about a billion dollars in the presidential race, is a small amount. … We have a much bigger impact than the funds. One, we’re careful about how we spend our funds and are really faithful to the donors when we tell them 90 percent of this is going to go directly into this campaign. By law, I have to spend some of the overhead out of the campaign money, otherwise I’d do 100 percent and raise the overhead somewhere else.

The other thing is, we’re strategic. We first stay focused. Where can we make a difference? We don’t get into every race. Some people, we think, would be good, but they’ve got a pretty easy race, so we let that play out. Some people we think are not good, but it’s hard to win the race against them. A challenger can’t do it because they’re in such strong political positions. So we don’t get engaged there. … We try to leverage the influence we have, work with others, be thought leaders. Sticking to your knitting is really important in a job like this, so we try to do that as well.

You’re not afraid to get involved in the primaries, which means you sometimes have to make some Republicans mad at you by making choices in the primaries. We have, in particular, when they campaigned as lower taxes, smaller government, free markets, and then their votes don’t match up. We run the ads and point out their votes. They don’t like that; they get ticked off at us. Then they say, “Well, you’re going to make us lose the seat to a Democrat.” My view is a strong Republican in a competitive race is better than a duplicitous Republican who says one thing and does something else. I don’t really agree that we’re likely to lose the seats we get into. I think we’ll have a better candidate and a better congressman or senator.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called the Club for Growth the Club for Greed. What were your thoughts whenever you heard that, and what are your thoughts about that now? The club put out a white paper. We’re doing that now on all the presidential candidates. It pointed out that when Huckabee was in office, he championed tax increases, not tax cuts, and grew the budget in Arkansas. Now, he defends that, and in his book now even says that some of those were the best things he did. But that’s not small government, pro-growth, free-market economics. We put the white paper out, but then we also [ran] ads in the 2008 primary telling the voters about his record, and he really hated that.

This time, now he’s running again, we went back and looked and said, “No, the record’s still there, and we’re still going to tell people about it.” I won’t make a personal attack and say the person is a bad person, but we will say this is their record and why we don’t think they’d be the right person for president.

You were a three-term congressman from Indiana. But you were born in California and lived there until your dad passed away. When and how did you move back to Indiana, and what impact did it have on you? I was 5 [years old] and the oldest of four children. I realize now, as an adult, how much my mom was a saint for raising us four. To do that, she moved us from California, where she’d met my dad, back to Indiana, where she grew up, and her family was there. I had a childhood that was idyllic. It was in a small town. Everybody in the town knew the McIntoshes and we knew everybody else.

I grew up being a Boy Scout, going to church camp, working in a local factory to put myself through school, being active in the band and debate and all the things at high school. I just took for granted that that’s life in America, and it’s been my barometer for the American dream. … I had a stepdad with a small business, and he said, “Well, we believe in private property. Our property here we’re responsible for, but we also control what trees we plant and how the yard looks.” That lesson of private property rights was something that, as a boy, I just remembered hearing it and internalizing it, and it’s been a guide to me.

When did faith come alive for you? It was in Indiana, in that little town. One of my best friends in band was a strong believer, a Baptist. He was a year older than me, but we liked each other. He invited me to his youth group. I went, but resisted it. We would debate theological matters, not that I was interested in what was being said. I was interested in having the debate.

God used that to get me to explore it. Then a different group of friends and I set up an inter-denominational Bible study and some saintly parents adopted us. I saw them later as an adult and was able to tell them thank you, because that’s when I believed Christ was God and my savior. It took me many years of working out what that meant, but it set the foundation.

How old were you then? I was 17. They told me, “Well, we did it so that our younger kids could watch you high-school students go to a Bible study and say prayers, so thank you for doing it.”

Were your conservative political ideals also formed around that time? Let me tell you about the journey there, because it didn’t start that way. I went to college and really put that newfound faith on the shelf. My freshman year I went to church most of the time, but by my sophomore year I was partying, drinking to go to the football games, and having a fun time.

I thank God for not giving up on me because He pursued me. My political beliefs were pretty leftist. I was part of a progressive party and the debating groups at Yale. I had an … acquaintance there who came up to me and said, “Well, David, what do you believe in?” I said, “Well, I believe in free speech.” She said, “What about your faith?” I said, “I’m a Christian,” because I kept the label, and a couple of other things. She looked at me and said, “You’re not a liberal, you’re a conservative.” I said, “Really?” Because at that time, the label I had was a liberal. I said, “Well, let me think about that.”

I spent the summer thinking, what do I really believe in, reaching back to that life in Kendallville and the things that were important to me. That started a couple-year evolution. I then went to law school and had two great professors. Antonin Scalia was a professor there … and Richard Epstein, who’s a famous professor. I took courses from them that really made me think, and I realized after my first year of law school, I am a conservative, a constitutional conservative. Freedom is the thing I value most in political, public life, and I want to live my life to promote that.

Talk about your time in the Reagan administration. President Reagan is my hero. I think he stood for the right approach to American government, which is, follow the Constitution and we will be better off for it. Dan Quayle—working for him taught me how that actually works because my assignment was to oversee all the regulators. I realized this is a horrible process [with] no accountability, and they’re making all these rules and regulations that make it impossible for U.S. businesses to really thrive.

But it’s very hard to undo that, so it taught me about the day-in and day-out of government. Then, when we lost in ’92 … we went back to Indiana. Two years later there was an opportunity to run for Congress. My wife looked at me … and said, “I know you’re going to do this, what does this mean?”

By that time I had completely given my life to God, so I was trying to follow His will, ask Him about that. One of the ways that I felt comfortable was, He would send people to me and say, “I’ve been told I should pray for you.” I remember one lady, Veronica, who did that, and I thought, “Wow! How did this happen?” I’m sure I’ve many times fallen short of that, but I’ve tried to live my life looking for His will and trying to follow it.

You had now-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a law professor. What was it like to be his student? It was great and challenging. He would make us debate in class and really focus us to think about the process. Is the process going to let freedom flourish more than the result? That was a big lesson I had to learn in law school. What looked like it was a fair result may not be the right result because the process wasn’t followed.

What was your impression of Dan Quayle? The media kind of knew they had distorted him, but they didn’t want to give him a second chance. Dan’s a lot smarter than his image. He is a caring person. His faith is important to him, and he’s an incredibly good businessman who, when he left politics, has been successful because he can bring people together to make a deal.

One final question: How do you want people to remember you when you’re gone? What came to mind was a movie title. It is my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. … I’ve tried to live that life. How do you give back? At the same time, I’ve suffered sort of George Bailey suffering. He had to put aside his dreams to live that life. I wanted to be president of the United States. I’m not going to be president of the United States. I’m content about that, the way he became content about that. That would be what I’d like to have people say, “Yeah, he had a wonderful life because he gave back, helped other people.”

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with David McIntosh on The World and Everything in It.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.



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