Why is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., so excited about his new policy director, Heritage Foundation alum Mike Franc?
"He likes gray hair!" said Franc, laughing, about how he came to be hired by the California Republican.
Then he got serious.
"On the policy front, they respect my background," he offered. "And my Hill background.
"And you can't spend 20 years at the Heritage Foundation and not come away with the equivalent of a Ph.D. in conservative studies," he added.
His credentials as a policy guru with keen insight into how Congress works are a given: He was a legislative aide for Education Secretary Bill Bennett, and in his most recent tour of duty on Capitol Hill, he was the communications director for then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
At Heritage, he solidified his reputation over the years as a loyal conservative and as vice president for congressional relations there he built and maintained close relationships with members of the House GOP and earned respect.
And it's no secret McCarthy could use some reinforcements; party conservatives, often egged on by Heritage's political arm Heritage Action and other conservative groups, have repeatedly balked at leadership's legislative plans — including a recent revolt that resulted in one of leadership's top health care initiatives being pulled from floor consideration.
But in an interview with CQ Roll Call, McCarthy said he hired Franc for his open policy director position because of his impressive résumé, not because of Heritage connections.
"I think everything in Mike’s background is helpful," McCarthy said. "His work ethic and what he's worked towards. I went looking for his skill set, not to find someone out of a certain building."
Franc, who takes on his new post June 17, said his background at Heritage should be helpful, but in a separate interview with CQ Roll Call, he demurred when asked specifically about what role he might play in rebuilding some bridges.
"One thing that I’ve always thought was a great strength of Heritage, as an institution, is that it has a very, very broad bandwith in terms of policy issues that it covers," he said. "You have just about every flavor of conservative mind or ideology ... so you get a good feel or radar for all those things ... I can understand where conservatives come from and see an issue and analyze it [from that perspective]."
McCarthy rejected the idea he might need to rebuild any bridges in the first place.
"I don't view that we have a bad relationship with the Heritage Foundation," he said.
He also disputed the assertion that a significant number of renegade far-right Republicans were heeding the call of Heritage and making it difficult to govern — a problem, presumably, Franc would help address in his new role.
"It has never been an argument about the philosophical, but about strategy," McCarthy said of interparty squabbles. "And I think Mike’s history of being in these positions before as well will only add to his ability to make a more united strategy, to put the boat rowing in a better position."
Franc suggested he had a similar assessment of the situation, adding that there were messaging and education components to all this as well.
"Sometimes you can’t expect to win some of these legislative battles if people don’t understand why you're doing it," Franc said both of lawmakers themselves and of lawmakers' ability to communicate with constituents. "And then you have to have the right vehicles, the right legislation to make that happen. ... We have to make sure that, when an issue arises, we can translate that into the proper legislative form. It's an art form."
Franc used the example of Democrats' handling of gun-control legislation in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"They tried to take advantage of a horrible situation in Connecticut and offer up solutions that weren't relevant. They didn't match up properly," he said.
"The addition of Mike is not going to show in the first two months, it's in the first two, three years out," McCarthy predicted. "Mike will be instrumental in helping expand the policy base [and] help explain why you move policy at the time ... Mike will be helpful in helping members with that expertise to make the next Paul Ryans."
Meanwhile, Democrats are not so sure Franc's hire is an exciting "get" so much as it might be a "Hail Mary" pass as Republicans wonder what it will take to get through the next few months — with an immigration fight, debt ceiling and budget battles to come.
"[Republicans] can try to change the wallpaper with this new hire," one Democratic leadership aide said, "but [it] won't change the fact that this House is on fire and their own Members are burning it down."