GOP's phony moderates: "Rebels" who do far more talking than doing

Supposed mavericks like Peter King are better at preening for the spotlight than actually taking on the Tea Party

Published October 8, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Peter King               (AP/Manuel Balce Cenata)
Peter King (AP/Manuel Balce Cenata)

While every member of Congress enjoys the sound of their own voice, few do so as vigorously as Peter King. Ever since it became apparent that the government was indeed going to shut down, the so-called moderate Long Island Republican has been seemingly everywhere. There he was, excoriating Ted Cruz (again and again and again); and there he was, claiming to hold the inside scoop on a silent majority of reasonable Republicans, too cowed by Tea Party extremism to stand up on their own. Always ready to give a good quote, and increasingly prepared to give it at the expense of a Republican colleague, King has been embraced by the political media as the unexpected voice of reason, a sharp contrast to the cacophony of feverish nonsense emanating on a daily basis from the rest of the Republican pack.

But there’s a problem with the King-as-moderate-truth-teller narrative.

If King were half the maverick the media’s made him out to be, he’d have more to show for himself than a handful of headlines from liberal outlets cheering at the sight of internal GOP dysfunction. He’d have some votes to back it up. But as Brian Beutler has demonstrated, tangible evidence of real opposition to the Tea Party order is exactly what Peter King lacks. At nearly every critical juncture, at almost every moment when he could’ve taken a stand against his party’s recklessness, Peter King did exactly nothing. Take away the media spotlight, the salacious pull-quote, and the hard-eyed glare. Leave the legislative record — both before and during the shutdown crisis. Stop and take a gander at what’s left to see. You’ll find one procedural vote of dissent: little to look at, much less to praise.

Yet, while King has been the most conspicuous of the toothless Republican dissenters, he’s hardly been the only one willing to curry media favor for sounding reasonable while nevertheless voting like a maniac. In fact, King’s rhetoric, overheated as it is, isn’t even the most caustic example of Republican-on-Republican verbal violence to come from the shutdown. That award would have to be reserved for California’s Devin Nunes, who despite being a 10-year veteran of Congress only popped into the wider public’s consciousness last week, when he called an unspecified assortment of his fellow Republicans “lemmings with suicide vests.” Nunes’ ire was the reaction to a shutdown strategy he called “silly” and suicidal, and likened to a small bicycle facing an onrush of speeding cars.

With words such as these, surely Nunes voted against the Tea Party’s shutdown plan, right? Surely he distinguished himself as a full-blown human being, not some addle-brained lemming? Nope. Like King, Nunes voted with the rest of his party through and through. In fact, Nunes did even less than King. He lined up like a good lemming, pointed himself toward the nearest cliff, strapped on his suicide vest, and off he went. As if to fortify his embarrassment and render his cowardice crystal clear, Nunes even went so far as to deny he’d supported a measure to avoid the shutdown. As an audio recording soon proved, that was a falsehood, making Nunes not only a lemming but also a liar, to boot.

The last and perhaps least of the Republican dissenters is Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent, who, like King and Nunes, has done far more talking than doing when it comes to challenging his party’s leadership. Dent has refrained from the bombast that’s defined King’s and Nunes’ performances, opting instead to portray himself as a mild-mannered “center-right candidate in a center-right district in a center-right country.” Dent’s even made that most meaningless of symbolic gestures, deferring his congressional salary until the shutdown is over. But, again, Dent’s words have turned out to be nothing more than just that, as he, like King, has voted but once against Speaker Boehner’s demands.

The Republican moderates, then, appear to be about as real as the party’s “rebranding” efforts from the beginning of this year. As the events of the past week have shown in abundance, there is no new, more modern, and more moderate Republican Party. There are the true believers, men like Ted Yoho and women like Michele Bachmann; and there are the faux moderates, like Peter King and Charlie Dent. And somewhere in-between the two stands Devin Nunes, perhaps the best embodiment of the House GOP of them all: loud, brash, angry — and ready to do whatever the Tea Party tells him.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Charlie Dent Congress Fraud Gop Moderate Peter King Republican Party Tea Party U.s. House Of Representatives