Rep. Tom Cole: outcast of his caucus

It seems the Republicans have run out of squishy moderates to purge. Now they're starting to run conservatives out of town for being insufficiently doctrinaire.

Exhibit A: The defenestration of Tom Cole.

Cole, a deeply conservative congressman from deeply Republican Oklahoma, is not to be confused with a RINO: Republican in name only. But when the lawmaker, who has been part of House GOP leadership, floated a perfectly sensible notion last week — that Republicans should accept President Obama's offer to extend tax cuts for the 98 percent of Americans who earn less than $250,000 a year — he was treated as if he had been caught reading Marx in the Republican cloakroom.

"I think he's wrong and I think most of the conference thinks that he's wrong," declared rookie Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Cole, he said, is "a man who has voted for a lot of the increased spending in Washington, D.C., and that's the problem. We have a lot of Republicans who are, you know, catching their hair on fire right now, but they're the ones who were here for 10 or 20 years causing all the problems that we're now facing."

Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., called Cole's position "absurd." House Speaker John Boehner went before the cameras to deliver Cole a rare public rebuke.

Cole, who enjoys a lifetime rating of 92 percent from the American Conservative Union as he enters his sixth term, isn't worried about a putsch. "I think I'm going to be hard to sell as a dangerous liberal," he told me with a chuckle. The outrage, he said, "surprised me a little bit, because I think the politics of this are blindingly clear."

Cole is correct, for two reasons. On a practical level, his plan calls Obama's bluff: Because raising taxes on the top 2 percent of earners won't bring in nearly enough tax revenue to fix the budget problem, Obama would likely be forced to come up with some serious entitlement-program cuts as part of a larger tax-and-spending deal.

But Cole is right for a larger reason: The Republicans' negotiating position is morally indefensible. They are holding 98 percent of Americans hostage by refusing to spare them a tax hike unless the wealthiest 2 percent are included.

"Some people seem to think this is leverage. I think that's wrong," Cole said. "You don't consider people's lives as leverage. I live in a blue-collar neighborhood. I've got a retired master sergeant as my next door neighbor, police officer across the street. These are working folks, they're great people, and the idea that I would ever use them as leverage is just wrong."

In defying the party purists, Cole is taking a novel approach: doing what his constituents want him to do. His staff reports that calls and emails to his Washington office are running 70 percent favorable, and calls to his south-central Oklahoma offices are 90 percent positive.

No surprise: Median income in his district is under $47,000, below the national average of $52,000. Only 1.8 percent of households there have income of $200,000 or more.

"They're pro-business, they're pro-free enterprise," Cole said of his constituents, who are farm and ranch workers, oil employees and the like. "But they're going to want to know that we're not going to raise taxes on them because they make $43,000 a year, and $1,000 to $2,000 is a lot of money when you're trying to raise a family."

Cole, who worked as a political consultant and as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee before coming to Congress, understands this reality better than many of his peers. In their obsession with protecting the wealthiest, Republicans often work against their own constituents, because red states tend to be poorer and more reliant on government spending.

Cole's stand is a refreshing reminder that being conservative doesn't mean you have to be unreasonable. "Both sides, I think, need to be a lot more clear-eyed," he told me. "We're going to be living in this house together for four years in all likelihood. Let's get some things done that we can agree on."

Thankfully, Cole, who won re-election with 68 percent of the vote, isn't intimidated. Of his intra-party critics, Cole asks: "Where's your political courage? It's pretty easy to vote 'no' around here. But we've got a divided government. The American people ratified that in this election. They've basically told us to work together. Here's something we both agree on that would be in their interest. Why don't we do this?"

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at danamilbank@washpost.com.


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK