Unpacking Cantor's 'Young Gun' Epithet

GOP leader's wild west nickname is a hit with media

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The cliché  Eric Cantor burst onto center stage of the debt ceiling debates this week. And with him came a ready-made nickname. "Eric Cantor: The 'Young Gun' in the Debt Standoff" proclaimed NPR. "GOP 'young gun' Cantor draws controversy, ire" says the CBS Evening News.

Where it's from  Most immediately, the name comes from Cantor himself. With two fellow congressmen, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, he wrote "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders" and made a promotional video with the same name.

Of course, the phrase is presumed to come from the vernacular of the Old West. It made the leap to the 20th century in 1956, when Hollywood released a western called "The Young Guns." The 1980s were good for the phrase too. "Wham!" hit it big with their breakout single "Young Guns" and, of course, the now iconic 1988 movie "Young Guns" starring Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kevin Bacon, et al. is probably the modern reference with which you are most familiar.

Why it's catching on now  Evoking the image of Cantor and his colleagues as "young" helps tell a narrative of generational divide within the Republican party itself. Jackie Calmes at The New York Times writes:

On one side are older, more senior conservatives like the two top leaders, Speaker John A. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, who remember the budget fights and Republican setbacks of the 1990s and want some deal.

On the other are the proudly uncompromising junior lawmakers, many of them Tea Party sympathizers, whose ranks were so inflated by Republican gains in the midterm elections.

Call "young gun," then, a sort of "mama grizzly" counterpart. Though Cantor himself likes the "Young Gun" name, others also seem to use it to call up the image of an irresponsible outlaw who, unlike McConnell, seems not to care about the stakes of his game.

Why else? The "Young Gun" title fits with a rash of "action film"-y language used by commentators on the crisis. An editorial in The New York Times called the Republican behavior "hostage taking" and warned that the "weapon" of the debt ceiling vote (like the Ring of Power?) is "too powerful to be controlled."  Peggy Noonan writes, "So you'd think the hangman's noose would have concentrated their minds. Instead, of course, it's a battle." The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, "the debt ceiling is merely the trigger. The gun is the spending boom of the last three years." And The New York Times says of the Young Gun himself, "Mr. Cantor helped torpedo behind-the-scenes discussions." We can't tell if it's more Lord of the Rings, Die Hard, or The Hunt for Red October when you toss all the language together, but Washington sure is exciting these days.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.