Last October, Virginia’s Tea Party movement was on a roll. Hundreds of supporters crowded the Great Richmond Convention center for what was grandly called a “Patriots Convention.” Hallways and auditoriums were chock-a-block with budget hawks, Patrick Henry re-enactors, booksellers hawking Ayn Rand, and middle-aged men packing .45-caliber Colt pistols in Velcro holsters with stickers stating “Guns Save Lives.”
Basking in the glow of the grassroots protest movement against big government and taxes, Jamie Radtke, a 30-something former Republican political operative, was emerging as a bright new star. She had pulled together about 300 volunteers and up to 8,000 sympathizers for the movement. Their clout was felt the following month when Republicans took the House of Representatives in a stunning defeat for President Obama and his Democrats, forcing such congressmen as liberal Virginian Tom Perriello out of office.
Fast forward to today. For weeks, the nation was on a dangerous roller-coaster ride as the GOP-dominated House stubbornly refused to approve raising the federal debt limits unless a budget with huge spending cuts went with it. A breakthrough was finally passed hours before the Aug. 2 deadline, but the spectacle painted Congress as irresponsible and dysfunctional, bringing global condemnation. According to one poll, 77 percent of Americans thought the legislators acted liked “spoiled children.”
So how did we get to the precipice? A major reason was the Tea Party movement that cheered on freshmen Republicans in the House of Representatives to do everything they could to thwart a compromise. Radtke, who is running against former Gov. George Allen to be the Republican candidate for Senate in 2012, is partly responsible for the tragedy of the past few weeks, although she’s not in office, at least not yet. Radtke rejected the debt deal and opposes raising the U.S. debt ceiling in all circumstances.
It’s not the only time Radtke has shown her political immaturity. She made noise over the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles and Reagan National airports as well as the expansion of a Metro rail line to Dulles. The authority has come under fire from conservatives because former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine gave it power over the Dulles rail extension and the Dulles Toll Road that helps pay for it. Kaine also was blamed because the authority wants to allow labor rules to prevail for rail construction, as they do in most big U.S. cities.
Radtke’s solution was unworkable: abolishing the authority and turning jurisdiction for the Dulles rail line and the airports over to Virginia. Fat chance there. She also opposes Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s plans to spend $4 billion on the state’s well-worn roads and bridges.
Meanwhile, the “no spending” mantra that she espouses is presenting dangers of a more immediate type. Thanks to House Republicans under the influence of the Tea Party, funding has not been provided to the Federal Aviation Administration. Some 4,000 furloughs have resulted and plans to upgrade the nation’s overworked air traffic control system have been suspended. Closer to home, McDonnell was shocked to learn that Virginia could lose its AAA credit rating if there was no deal on the debt ceiling because the state has so many federal workers -- a factoid that may be news to Radtke.
In fact, more average voters are catching on to the fatuousness of the Tea Party. A new Public Policy Poll reports that of 500 Virginians questioned, 79 percent don’t have an opinion on Radtke and 16 percent didn’t like her. Only 5 percent supported her. If the upcoming Senate race were between Kaine and Radtke, Kaine would easily win. It would still be pretty much a toss- up if Kaine’s opponent was Allen.
The upshot seems to be that for all of her promise at political organizing, Radtke just isn’t ready for prime time. Washington needs, mature, thoughtful leaders, not neophytes on an ego trip. The global stakes are just too high for a bunch of people running around packing heat and playing Patrick Henry.