The next Ted Cruz: Meet the Tea Party idol who could oust a top House Republican

Tea Party challenger Art Halvorson tells Salon that Boehner's not "man enough" to lead, and new House will oust him

Published October 22, 2013 4:45PM (EDT)

Art Halvorson
Art Halvorson

After their government shutdown and debt ceiling stand-off ended in disappointment, some Tea Party groups are turning their sights on avenging their perceived betrayal in next year’s Republican primaries. Here’s one to watch: in Southwest Pennsylvania, right-wing Coast Guard retiree and real estate developer Art Halvorson is out to oust incumbent Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and inherited the seat from his father in 2001. Shuster voted for the Boehner-backed deal that ended the shutdown; Halvorson is endorsed by RedState’s Erick Erickson and the Madison Project PAC, which last summer was already running ads slamming Shuster for voting “eight times” to raise the debt ceiling.

If Tea Party challengers like Halvorson pull off upsets next year, what kind of candidates – or congressmen – will they be? In a wide-ranging Monday interview, Halvorson told Salon that “nothing would have changed “ if the debt ceiling wasn’t raised, advocated weaning Americans off of “dependence” on Medicare and Social Security, and bemoaned the end of the gold standard. He also had harsh words for Barack Obama ("easily intimidated" and prone to "anger"), John Boehner (not "man enough"), and even Paul Ryan. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

What did you make of the vote last week to pass a [continuing resolution] and raise the debt ceiling?

I thought it was a betrayal of the American people

How so?

We had started down a course to defund Obamacare, and Mr. Boehner went along with that, probably under pressure…Having chosen to take that path strategically, he needed to have decided ahead of time what the exit strategy was. And to cave was not the right exit strategy. He needed to follow through. And I believe they were winning that war…

It is [also] a war between conservatives and the establishments…Worldviews…are just night and day…one of them, with big government, is that the government can be a provider as well as a protector. And I think conservatives believe that the role of government, as outlined by the founding fathers, is to fundamentally be the role of protector, and the provider of justice, but not the provider of goods and services and economic control.

Is it your view that Boehner was planning all along for the showdown to end in that way, or do you think that his strategy-

I cannot judge the man’s heart…One could argue both cases, with respect to pure motives or impure…

[Either] he was throwing a bone to the conservatives, but he never intended to follow through - and the evidence for that case is that he began immediately to revise his position, to negotiate with himself and allow this circular firing squad, sort of, to begin to attack conservatives…To the extent that he didn’t manage that well,  that either is due to a lack of leadership on his part, or complicit behavior with the establishment in the Senate….

[Or] the alternative is that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And I tend to not think that he doesn’t know what he’s doing…

If you’re elected to Congress, are there any circumstances under which you would vote for John Boehner to be Speaker?

I don’t believe so. I can’t imagine that there would be…Fundamentally, that’s why I am running, is because we need a new leader as speaker.

And who do you think should be speaker of the house?

…At least a half dozen folks I believe are qualified who could step into those -- step into that place.

The current House Republican Caucus -- how many of those Republicans do you think deserve to win their primaries next year?

That’s a tough question …Roughly a third of them are so hard-core establishment-minded that they should be primaried and probably should be replaced, because they’re unreliable conservative votes, and we need reliable, authentic conservatives in order to take our country back...

[Last] Wednesday night…if the House or the Senate had defeated that compromise, what do you think would have happened afterwards?

Well, we would not have defaulted unless the president chose to tell the Treasury Secretary not to pay interest on the debt. We have plenty of money coming in to service the debt…We were not in any were not in any position to default unless it’s intentional. So I think nothing would have changed…We just would have extended our quote-unquote “government shutdown” - really it’s just a slowdown…

This was not unique to Mr. Obama, though I think he took it to the next level…You try to create the most pain for the that people demand that the money be appropriated…They had to actually, intentionally create pain because there wasn’t enough pain created by the “shutdown” to accomplish the administration’s objectives.

How are you saying they did that?

They did it by creating stories, creating incidences where people were personally affected, where pain was felt. Shutting down the national parks and arresting people and kicking people out of their homes, because they happened to be located within the boundaries of the national parks…

Who was kicked out of their homes?

There were - well, you’re familiar with all the various stories of private property. I don’t want to get into those details. I’m just citing some open source examples. I hope that’s not where this interview is going…

If the debt ceiling had not been raised, do you think that would have been bad for the economy?

It would force changes. But that’s the whole point here: if we don’t force changes, the inertia of the increasing government spending is far more detrimental in the medium and the long-term then the short-term effect of not raising the debt ceiling…

I think we’ve already passed that point where we can’t borrow money, because now it’s just through the Fed they’re simply buying up that debt. That’s just- that’s just crazy.

So come January and February, when government funding runs out and then the debt ceiling increase runs out, what should House Republicans do in the lead-up to those deadlines?

They need to be doing what needs to be done right now. And just kicking the can until January or February is simply going to repeat the same thing we just went through. They need to be demanding, they need to be proposing solutions right now…doing that stuff right now, and define a strategy so the entire caucus can be behind it .

What should that strategy be?

I don’t know the full extent of the options they have, but they have options and they need to be exercising those options. One of the key things is the messaging…you have to start with a message, and a leader would do that, and articulate the problem and articulate some of the solutions, and get the people behind them and prepare the people for the fight. And it’s going to be a huge fight...

Do you think delaying or defunding Obamacare should be a mandatory condition for raising the debt ceiling again?

I certainly think it needs to be on the table, because Obamacare fundamentally exemplifies the problem.

You mentioned Republicans had been “winning.” What would the path to victory in the government shutdown and the showdown over the debt ceiling have looked like?

Part of it is that Mr. Obama’s approval rating would continue to plummet…It’s continuing to go down because he doesn’t offer any solution. He’s not willing to negotiate. I don’t think he’s able to negotiate - many people say that - and he doesn’t even appoint somebody who will negotiate on his behalf. He’s just intractable…

Republicans, if they would show some strength of character and stand up to him, I believe the American people would side with the true leadership. But I don’t see that in Mr. Boehner. I certainly don’t see that in Mr. Obama…

Mr. Shuster and Mr. Boehner are not standing up, and so they could be doing far better in this battle, if you will, for the hearts and minds of the American people, and for the future of our country, if they would be man enough to stand - leader enough to stand and defend their position and articulate it.

So is your view that if the government had stayed shut down and the debt ceiling hadn’t been raised, that Obama would then have made concessions on Obamacare?

Yes...Obamacare is not ready for primetime. It will collapse. He’s fundamentally playing with a losing hand…

As I’m reviewing the landscape of the nation, I believe that people are ready for leaders to emerge, and Mr. Boehner scored some points when he agreed to defund Obamacare as part of that initial CR. But then he immediately lost any status he gained, because he began negotiating with himself and began to slowly back down and start to look weak again.

When you say you don’t think Obama is “able” to negotiate, what do you mean?

Well, I’m not the only one saying that. That’s a sort of a conclusion based on the way he has operated. He does not engage. He does not seem to be interested. Therefore I have to make a judgment as to why is that. And I’m thinking maybe he’s not able to. And that’s over the course of time, putting together evidence from a number of occasions where he is easily intimidated and brought to a point, I believe, of anger. I’ll cite the case where he kicked Eric Cantor out of a meeting because Cantor was being tough…

I’m not just picking on the president. I’m saying Mr. Boehner I don’t think is a great negotiator either.

How many Republicans do you think will lose their seats in primaries because of the way this deal went down?

I have no way of knowing...I think the tide is shifting though… There’s a poll that came out last week I saw that 60 percent of people said that they wanted to clean house - including their own representative…

Where was that poll from?

I believe I saw it on Drudge Report. But I don’t know who did the poll.

Win or lose, these primary challenges - or the threat of primary challenges - how much of an impact do you think they’ve had in terms of getting incumbents to behave in a way that’s more in line with the vision that you’re putting forward?

It’s hard to measure…There is some evidence, for example, in my case: Mr. Shuster was rated at 50 percent in 2012 by the Heritage Action score - just to give you one objective assessment - and now he’s in the mid to low 70s. So clearly by the scoring of the key votes, by that particular scorecard, he has shifted to the right.

Some writers or political operatives have expressed the view that the shutdown and the influence of the Tea Party are going to hurt Republicans in the midterms, or could even lead to the Democrats taking back the House – what do you make of that argument?

Yeah, I think that’s wishful thinking. Look: the American people love underdogs. They love leaders. That’s what’s made America great, is great leaders. And what’s going on here with the Tea Party, or however you want to characterize those who are standing up to the establishment, I believe they’re going to be embraced by the American – did you know Ted Cruz got an eight minute standing ovation last night in Texas?

Where was that that Senator Cruz got an eight minute standing ovation?

When he returned to Texas last night. I don’t remember where I saw that - it was cited in one news report…Again, it’s just one anecdote, Josh, I’m not basing my whole argument on that. I’m just saying that I believe that leaders will be rewarded…

And what should happen to Medicare?

Medicare is not going to be - it should not be because – let’s put it this - for the near term it should be managed better…But Medicare is a fixture in our economy, and in our society right now, so I would not – we need to make improvements, and we need to be smart about that, but we need to keep it in place while we build an alternative, better approach. And the better approach is to begin shifting our culture. And this is a long-term strategy with near-term steps that are necessary to be shifting away from a dependency government-based provision of certain needs and services - services for needs, in this case medical services - to an individually- based approach, where we get back to independence on the part of a person and a family, away from dependence by persons and families…

We need to move away from this direction that we’re currently going where government will provide for everybody. That’s simply a socialist model…

So should most people who are over 65 get their insurance in the future from private insurers, or through the government?

Obviously, my preference is more people, as many people as possible - we’re talking in general terms here, so I don’t know where we’re going, I’m just trying to express my philosophical viewpoint - that more people on private insurance is better than more people on public assistance, and dependence on public provision of that. So are we understanding each other on this issue?

I think I understand – you said at the beginning that you want government to act as less of a provider. So I want to understand -

But to the extent that the government is necessary, they should be provided with that model. But we should be as a nation seeking, and our government should be seeking, to promote less dependence on government…I want the government to be in the position to make available access to as many different models as possible…I mean we have total government in the military side, with which I’m familiar. It’s total government medicine…

Should the government play less of a role in military and veterans’ health coverage?

No. No. Not necessarily. I just cite that as an example of: we already have all these models, the full spectrum, and I think it’s fine…

I’m admiting the government’s involved in it now. I just don’t want to see more government involvement…

So given that preference for more private health insurance, why not transition veterans’ care to private insurance?

There's a unique -- the military is unique, and that is that we deploy -- that we have to have full service capability, we have to have doctors on the staff, the doctors deploy to the area of operations...

And for veterans back in the United States, why not transition that to a private system?

I would be amenable to studying that, and being part of looking at that. I’m not – I mean, that’s a good point, yes, why - that’s a question we should be asking: Is there a better delivery mechanism - healthcare delivery mechanism - than the current VA structure. And I’m willing to look at that…I believe that’s a great question.

How much support do you think there is in your district for the kind of change you would like to see in Medicare?

… I’m not sure I could give you a clean assessment of where people are on that

…I’m not trying to blow smoke at you about, “Oh, people are ready for change.” I don’t think that would be right. They are willing to consider changes though. Because they know that the path we’re on is unsustainable. They want “the government” quote-unquote to stop spending more than they take in, and part of that is going to reflect – is going to require some pain and some change. And how much they’re willing to accept in the area that they are particularly benefiting [from] – anecdotally, I think people are ready to consider some changes.

The president’s proposal for chained CPI, which would reduce future Social Security benefits - what’s your view of that?

It’s classic government – it’s classic big government, so I think that it’s stealing from the American people…the government borrows money with no intentions of paying it back, and so how they – the way they deal with it is they allow the money to inflate…Without a gold standard or any real standard upon which - with just fiat money, the government is free to do that almost without any limitation. I say all that to say the CPI is just one more gimmick that the government has, a tool that they have at their disposal to sort of deal with…unintended consequences of big spending, deficit spending. That’s how they deal with it…It’s reprehensible…They’re perpetuating this establishment inertia, and it’s disgusting…

When you say “stealing from the American people,” are you referring to the Social Security program itself, or to proposal to change the CPI?

No. The effect that the changes to the CPI would have on the cost of living increases …It’s a one-off way to address the cost of living allowance increases in Social Security. So it’s an indirect way of addressing that problem which hurts so many people who are dependent on Social Security…

That’s what big government does. That’s why we’ve got to attack big government, that’s the enemy here. They’re trying to give all these things away, and they can’t afford it, and so they come back to try to address the unaffordability with things like that…

What should be done with Social Security then?

…The folks who are near to entering it or already receiving Social Security benefits need to be protected and preserved, and assured that there’s no threat from any quarter for those things that they have paid into…We need to be talking to younger generations now about getting onto an individual long-term retirement system that is not dependent on Social Security. We need to be moving away from it. It’s always going to be there, but there needs to be options…

Leaders need to start talking about these things, be unafraid to bear the consequences of being misquoted and being abused…as [Paul] Ryan was abused by his willingness to discuss the future of Social Security.

You mentioned the gold standard: do you think the U.S. should return to the gold standard?

…We should have never gone off of it in my opinion…So we need to be there, but can we get back to it? I think it’s still an open question for me.

You mentioned Paul Ryan. Have you been disappointed to see Congressman Ryan working as closely as he has with Speaker Boehner?

The short answer is yes... I think that as he was introduced on the scene, he was perceived to be - by me and many others - to be more conservative than he really is. So he has tendencies towards the establishment, I guess is the way I’d put it. So yeah, I’ve been disappointed. I wish he was more of an independent conservative than I believe he really is.

By Josh Eidelson

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