In early October, Virginia’s tea party movement was on a roll. Hundreds of supporters crowded the Greater Richmond Convention Center for what was grandly called a “Patriots Convention.” Hallways and auditoriums were chockablock with budget hawks, Patrick Henry re-enactors, booksellers hawking Ayn Rand and middle-aged men packing .45-caliber Colt pistols in Velcro holsters with stickers that said “Guns Save Lives.”
Basking in the glow of the grass-roots protest movement against big government and taxes, Jamie Radtke, a 30-something former Republican political operative, was emerging as a bright new star. She’d pulled together about 300 volunteers and as many as 8,000 sympathizers for the movement. Their clout was felt the following month when Republicans took the House of Representatives in a stunning defeat for President Barack Obama and his Democrats, forcing such congressmen as liberal Tom Perriello out of office.
Fast forward to today. For weeks, the nation has been on a dangerous roller- coaster ride while the GOP-dominated House of Representatives has stubbornly refused to approve raising federal debt limits unless a budget with huge spending cuts goes with it. A breakthrough agreement on raising the federal debt limit appeared imminent Aug. 1 that would cut $2.4 trillion in spending with no tax increases. But the damage has been done in terms of diminishing America’s reputation abroad. China’s Xinhua news agency trashed the United States for “dangerously irresponsible conduct” that could tank not only its economy but also that of the rest of the world.
So how did we get to the precipice? The major reason is the tea party, which seems to have surfaced the day Obama was inaugurated. Eight years of George W. Bush’s blowout spending were forgotten. Jobs to help pull the country out of the worst recession were painted as evil. Government workers became lazy freeloaders. Washington was the focus of everything wrong. Freshmen Republican congressmen elected with tea party backing in 2010 did whatever they could to marginalize Obama and hold the nation’s finances hostage while they pursued their stubborn dogma.
Radtke, who’s running against former Gov. George Allen for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2012, is partly responsible for the tragedy of the past few weeks although she’s not in office, at least not yet. Like the rest of her gang, she was most willing to trash any chance at compromise. In the words of Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, tea party members like her stood ready to “frag” responsible leaders in her own party just to appear tough.
It’s not the only time Radtke has shown her political immaturity. She made noise over the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles and Reagan National airports, as well as the expansion of the Metro rail line to Dulles. The authority has come under fire from conservatives because former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine gave it power over the Dulles rail extension and the Dulles toll road that helps pay for it. Kaine also was blamed because the authority wants to allow labor rules to prevail for rail construction, as they do in most big U.S. cities.
Radtke’s solution was unworkable: to abolish the authority and turn jurisdiction for the Dulles rail line and the airports over to Virginia. Fat chance there. Some of her other positions are also questionable. She opposes Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s plans to spend $4 billion on the state’s well-worn roads and bridges and opposed having business pay insurance for families with autistic children.
Meanwhile, the no-spending mantra that she espouses presents dangers of a more immediate type. Thanks to House Republicans under the influence of the tea party, funding hasn’t been provided to the Federal Aviation Administration. Some 4,000 furloughs have resulted and plans to upgrade the nation’s overworked air-traffic-control system with badly needed upgrades have been suspended. If your jetliner collides, you may know who to blame. Closer to home, McDonnell was shocked to learn that Virginia could lose its AAA credit rating if there was no deal on the debt ceiling because the state has so many federal workers — a dependence that may be news to Radtke.
In fact, more average voters are catching on to the fatuousness of the tea party. A new Public Policy Poll reports that of 500 Virginians asked this month, 79 percent didn’t have an opinion on Radtke and 16 percent didn’t like her. Only 5 percent supported her. If the upcoming Senate race were between Kaine and Radtke, Kaine would easily win. It would still be pretty much a toss-up if Kaine’s opponent were Allen.
The upshot seems to be that for all of her promise at political organizing, Radtke just isn’t ready for prime time. Washington needs mature, thoughtful leaders — not kids on an ego trip. The global stakes are just too high for a bunch of people running around packing heat and playing Patrick Henry.
Peter Galuszka is a contributing editor to Style Weekly and blogs for the Washington Post.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.