When tea-party Republicans arrived in Congress in 2011, many were energized and ready to shake up Washington — whatever the cost. But now, some are claiming that it is President Obama who is playing too rough.
Amid the government shutdown and debt-ceiling standoff — which has raised rhetoric sharply — they say the president has demonized what they consider healthy political opposition.
“The difference is, I don’t think his predecessors have antagonized the other side,” says Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who was president of the tea-party-packed House Republican freshman class last session.
“Bill Clinton did not intentionally antagonize Republicans,” Scott said. “And I think that most of those [earlier] presidents would have welcomed the opportunity to negotiate. And if they’re right on their points, then certainly they’d want to negotiate.”
Similar sentiment was echoed by several of Scott’s fellow tea partiers Wednesday.
“I was tea party before there was a tea party,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who has served in Congress since 2003. Obama, he said, “has tried to make some malevolent ghost, or evil spirit, out of the tea party.”
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a member of the tea-party caucus who famously yelled “You lie!” to Obama during a speech before a joint session of Congress, was among those who agreed Wednesday with Scott’s view that the president has been too antagonistic.
“Whether it’s personal or not, it’s not good for the country,” said Wilson, who apologized after his outburst on the House floor, made when Obama said the health care reform law would not cover undocumented immigrants.
The comments came a day after Obama’s news conference, in which the president did use some rhetoric that House conservatives found difficult to swallow, likening them to extortionists. “I’m not going to [negotiate] until the more extreme parts of the Republican Party stop forcing John Boehner to issue threats about our economy,” Obama said, referring to the Republican House speaker. “We can’t make extortion routine as part of our democracy.”
Of course, Congress in general is not a gentle place. Tea-party Republicans have taken plenty of attacks from the legislative branch as well. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called the House tea-party wing “legislative arsonists” for their demands. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called them “anarchists.”
While some might see irony in a group of firebrand reformers complaining that Obama has not been a peacemaker, Scott, who remains a tea-party favorite, said he does not dispute that all presidents have a right to stand up for what they believe. Yet he also says there’s a sense among his colleagues that Obama just doesn’t like them.
“It’s obvious any time he goes on TV,” Scott said. “I mean, words he uses to describe Congress, the tone of his voice, what he says, how he says it.”
“The role of the president is to be the peacemaker. And just by definition, an antagonist is not a peacemaker. Really, all of our roles should be to be the peacemaker. It doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for what you believe in. But he has been anything but that,” Scott said.
Has the rhetoric gotten too personal?
“It’s not so much personal with many of us,” Scott said.
“I mean, even when we were freshmen, the only member of that administration that actually met with the freshman class was [former Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner,” he added. “Other than that, the administration just said, “˜They’re anti-Obama, they’re tea-party controlled.’ There was no effort, and has been no effort, by that administration to establish any relationships with anybody over here.”