It has been requested that I post a response to Colby Itkowitz’s glowing Sunday profile of Pat Toomey. I’ve been a critic of Colby’s, but I actually think most of her piece is spot-on aside from one glaring problem. More on that in a minute.
The theme of Colby’s piece is that Pat Toomey has positioned himself as a go-to guy on policy ideas for House Republican freshmen associated with the tea party, and as a shepherd of those freshmen for Mitch McConnell. The problem is that the freshmen don’t trust John Boehner and Eric Cantor, so the Republican establishment has to whip votes indirectly through trusted brokers with outsider credibility.
This all makes perfect sense. Toomey was most recently the head of the Club for Growth PAC, who are a big player in movement conservative politics, and who gave lots of financial support to right wing candidates in 2010. This gives him a higher profile than a freshman Senator might normally have, as well as instant credibility with the right fringe of the party. If Toomey is endorsing a bill, that makes it safe for the ultras in the House and Senate to follow suit.
The other thing working in Toomey’s favor is that most of the House Republican freshmen likely know next to nothing about public policy. Toomey is a policy wonk who understands economics and political economy issues very well. So the tea people trust him to come up with the authentically
evil conservative policy ideas that will advance their agenda.
The big problem I have with Colby’s piece, and with her reporting on politicians in general, is that she takes Toomey at his word rather than looking at his votes. Toomey calls himself a fiscal conservative, so Colby adopts the label uncritically:
One can argue the merits of Toomey’s policies — a common pushback is that avoiding default on debt means billions in government programs would go unfunded — but there’s little question that Toomey has done as a senator exactly what he campaigned to do: be a leader on fiscal conservative issues.
He’s become a fixture on cable news shows, invited to appear almost daily these days for his perspective on the debt. His singular focus on the issue even inspired one Pennsylvania political reporter to compose a little ditty called “Toomey and the Debt” to the tune of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
Arizona Republican freshman U.S. Rep. David Schweikert, also a fiscal conservative, said when he’s looking for bills to sponsor in the House, he looks to see what Toomey has attached his name to first. Schweikert introduced the companion measure to Toomey’s debt-related bill.
“Fiscal conservative” is a phrase that’s badly in need of a definition. What does it mean?
Is it someone who votes for bills that lower the deficit, and not bills that increase the deficit?
Or is it someone who supports the conservative political position on fiscal policy issues? Either one of these definitions could be inferred from “fiscal conservative” but they are not the same thing at all.
If you actually do the math on Toomey’s voting record and on the policies he is endorsing, like eliminating the estate tax and making the Bush tax cuts permanent, then it’s pretty obvious the guy’s not walking the walk. Unless Colby is operating under the false assumption that tax cuts increase revenue, it’s clear that these tax cuts would increase the deficit by trillions of dollars. Toomey is straightforwardly selling a deficit-increasing agenda as a deficit-reducing one, and Colby is letting him get away with it.
Stepping back, it’s hard to understand why the Morning Call would think this kind of stenography is useful to readers. If people want to hear canned statements from Pat Toomey and Charlie Dent and Bob Casey’s political staffers, they can just sign up for their campaign email lists. Newspapers add value by cutting through the crap, and adding context to help people actually understand what’s going on.