Politics & Policy

Mr. Tea Party Goes to Washington

Allen West is under no illusion as to the fragile nature of the GOP’s coming House majority.

“The thing that you don’t want to see happen is that the Republican Party gets thrown on the ash heap as well, in 2012. Not a lot of patience out there right now,” West told Battle ‘10. “As I tell people, if the pendulum swings back to the other side — same old players, same old actors — that’s going to cause people to say, ‘here we go again.’”

West was launched to national stardom by the tea party movement, so there is perhaps no candidate in a better position to understand the electoral frustration that bubbled over on Nov. 2.

“It’s a repudiation of the liberal-progressive legislative agenda that we’ve seen in the past few months. Unemployment has risen, the debt has risen, our deficit has risen,” West said. “But it is not a return to the Republican Party. It’s an opportunity for the Republican Party to regain the trust and confidence of the American people. They’re going to have to do that very quickly.”

He says it will require a different sort of transition, more than a simple reversion to the Republican direction of 2006.

“I think that’s the challenge for this incoming Republican leadership is to allow these new faces to have positions where they can impact the agenda,” West said. “It has to come from a new vision. It has to come from new voices — a new energy.”

West is vibrant part of that new energy, though his political ambition predates the tea party. He began his first run for Congress in 2007, more than a year before Rick Santelli’s outburst on the trading floor gave a name to the fermenting frustration that would become the tea party movement. West lost to incumbent Democrat Ron Klein in the general election that cycle, but fared well for a first-time candidate with little party support, picking up 45 percent of the vote.

Then in October of 2009, West gave a five-minute speech at a political rally in which he praised patriotic dissent and likened the new mass movement to the American Revolution.

“When you think about how patriots got together in taverns, when patriots got together in houses, along rivers and creeks … this is where we are right now in our country,” West told the crowd. “If you’re here to stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, and to charge into the ranks, you are my brother and sister in this fight.”

The video went viral, was viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube, and helped launch West toward a 2010 rematch against Klein. What a newly attentive national audience soon discovered was that this outspoken, black Army veteran was anything but a rank-and-file Republican.

West’s campaign speeches read like a tea party manifesto, praising individual opportunity and responsibility, and railing against the health-care reform bill, cap-and-trade, TARP, auto bailouts, the stimulus, and unsustainable debt. He told a debate audience he would “hold John Boehner’s feet to the fire,” and gave the Republicans’ governing document, the “Pledge to America,” a grade of D-minus for failing to sufficiently address immigration, entitlement reform and national security. The strong message took hold, and on Nov. 2, West defeated Klein by eight points and won the right to represent Florida’s 22nd district in the 112th Congress.

And he hasn’t backed off since being elected. West strongly advocated for a flat tax, for example, during our interview: “We need to make sure that all Americans are stakeholders in the United States of America. This current tax code system that we have lends itself to class warfare. Forty-seven percent aren’t paying federal income taxes,” he said.

Needless to say, party bosses probably won’t be itching to discuss some of his proposals. West said he can help force important issues to the front burner the same way he campaigned — with strong advocacy.

“You just have to be a powerful voice,” West said. “I’ve been given a platform and we’re going to continue to use that platform for the right reasons.”

Indeed, West rolled from campaign mode straight into interview mode, appearing on local media outlets as well as Fox and Friends, Hannity, and CNN in the days following the election.

But the job of governing will come to the forefront soon enough — next week, in fact, when Republicans will gather in Washington to choose leaders from among their ranks. West said hasn’t yet committed his votes, but he has given some thought to the committees on which he would like to serve.

“With 22 years in the military, definitely the Armed Services Committee. I think that the government reform committee would be a good one for me, as well as the foreign relations committee with a Middle Eastern focus. And then, of course, the veterans committee,” West said. “So those would be the four that I will request in that order.”

Wherever he lands, though, the first order of business for the new House majority when the gavel hits next year is the same: putting the economy back on track.

“We have to create some type of economic certainty and predictability for the American people. I think we have to start looking at how we grow our small businesses so that we can start tackling this unemployment rate,” West said. “It has to come from private sector growth — their innovation, their ingenuity, their investment — and not the public sector growth, which is the wrong way to go.”

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