Rep. Tom Cole has firmly staked out a position as a foil to conservative hard-liners in the GOP conference, using the media’s megaphone to push back against Republicans who want to hold a firmer line in spending battles with President Barack Obama.
In recent weeks, he’s compared the GOP’s right flank to the drunk uncle of a dysfunctional family, suggested Republican critics of the Violence Against Women Act were racist, and singed the tactics of Speaker John A. Boehner’s detractors as “amateur night at the Bijou.”
The Oklahoma Republican, who worked as a political consultant before his election to Congress in 2003, argues he is no liberal — saying his disagreements are strategic, not ideological.
His close friendships with many GOP lawmakers give him wider latitude to speak his mind in public.
“I love the man. Tom Cole is a thoughtful, brilliant, committed American statesman. And he has a right to be wrong once in a while just like anybody else,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
Still, Cole’s recent moves have earned him some enmity on the right, with one GOP lawmaker privately calling him a “joke,” and his closeness to GOP leadership has prompted questions about whether Cole is speaking as a conduit on behalf of Ohio’s Boehner.
“As House GOP leaders push for unity on all fronts, moderates within the party appear exempt. Rarely are they called to the carpet for creating fissures within the party or initiating a circular firing squad,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative outside group.
“I don’t speak for him,” Cole said of Boehner. “We certainly don’t coordinate things. If I was that close, he probably wouldn’t have been chastising me during the fiscal cliff,” when Cole urged Republicans to give in to Obama’s demand for tax increases.
The idea of Cole as Boehner’s surrogate would have been laughable only a few years ago, when the two tussled over Cole’s stewardship of the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2007, Cole threatened to resign when Boehner demanded he fire the top two staffers at the campaign committee, a move that forced the speaker to back off.
“It’s ironic — it shows how new some of these people are. There was a time when Boehner and I were considered oil and water,” Cole said.
While leadership sources confirm Cole’s recent public comments are entirely his own, the lawmaker has since worked to gain Boehner’s trust and is known by GOP lawmakers as one of Boehner’s most vocal supporters in closed-door meetings.
Cole said he’s fighting “political immaturity” from some members of the right wing of the conference.
“This isn’t a pickup game of football where you draw the plays in the sand and then go run ’em,” he said. Moments like the defeat of Boehner’s “plan B” bill during the fiscal-cliff debate and the ham-handed failed coup plot against Boehner “suggest that we’re not cohesive enough to run the institution.”
Regarding the failed coup effort, Cole said Boehner’s opponents should have taken him on in closed-door leadership elections held in November, what Cole considers the traditional — and proper — route for such a challenge.
“I guess I’m much more of an Edmund Burke conservative. I believe in organic conservatism and traditions, and I respect them and try to work within them. It doesn’t mean you lose your ability to dissent, but there’s a way to do it,” Cole said. “I’m 92 percent lifetime ACU rating. I’m 100 percent pro-life. A-plus NRA. . . . So, I’d say by any of the traditional standards I look pretty conservative.”
It’s against the backdrop of the fiscal cliff fight that Cole has made some of his boldest forays into the political center.
Early in the standoff with Obama, Cole urged Republicans at a closed-door whip meeting to cave, saying that because the Bush-era tax rates were expiring across the board, standing firm would only hurt the GOP politically and substantively.
“It was never a tax increase vote,” Cole said, because tax rates were scheduled to increase under current law. “I think the guy that knows the most about that is Grover Norquist, and he said it wasn’t a tax increase vote. And, effectively, some of our people were arguing with him. That’s like arguing with the pope over what a sin is.”
Cole said his “drunk uncle” analogy “referred to us not being functional — not playing as a team,” citing the plan B episode as an example. The New Yorker profile featuring the quote described Cole as “the leader of a large faction of House Republicans who believe that the Tea Party-inspired congressmen are dooming the Party,” something his office objected to during the article’s fact-checking, according to his spokeswoman.
In a New York Times article about the Violence Against Women Act, Cole suggested that bigotry was motivating some Republican opponents to provisions in the bill extending criminal jurisdiction to tribal governments that raised thorny constitutional problems.
Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and one of only two Native Americans in the House, told the Times some of his colleagues seem to “fear Indians are going to take out 500 years of mistreatment on us through this. … It’s that kind of fear, veiled in constitutional theories,” he said.
But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who had disagreed with Cole on the merits of the issue, had nothing but praise for him. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a fellow member be as gracious in what he said to me after the Rules Committee,” Gowdy said. “He was extraordinarily complimentary of how I handled the constitutional aspects of” VAWA.