Dana Milbank
Opinion writer August 3, 2011

Who would’ve thought Allen West would go squishy?

During the Florida Republican’s successful campaign for the House, West became a tea party sensation with his speech urging supporters to take up arms against “a tyrannical government.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“If you’re here to stand up, to get your musket, to fetch your bayonet and to charge into the ranks, you are my brother and sister in this fight,” the retired Army officer shouted. “You need to leave here understanding one simple word. That word is: bayonet.”

But after less than seven months in Washington, Lt. Col. West has revised his battle plan. “You could do the front assault, like at Gallipoli or the Charge of the Light Brigade, but when you end up losing a whole lot of people,” he told an audience of college conservatives Wednesday, all you can do is “pat yourself on the back and say how valiantly we charged that hill, like Pickett’s Charge.” The smarter approach, he explained, would be for Republicans to outmaneuver Democrats, like they did in the debt-limit battle: “We checked and checkmated them.”

From a bayonet charge to a Washington chess match: Talk about going native. The African American conservative with the flattop can still talk like a militant, calling Democrats “socialists” and “the enemy.” But on his first big test, West joined the socialist enemy in the soft middle.


Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., greets tourists in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 29. (Harry Hamburg/Associated Press)

On the debt-limit legislation proposed by John Boehner, West skipped the conservative insurrection that humiliated the House speaker and brought down the bill. In fact, when GOP leaders rallied their caucus by playing a movie clip of two tough guys setting out to “hurt some people,” West joked that he would drive the getaway car.

Then, when congressional leaders and the White House worked out the debt-limit compromise, West wasn’t among the 66 House Republicans in opposition. Tea party leaders howled, but West called them schizophrenic, and he theatrically brushed their criticism off his shoulders.

“I called some of the tea party leaders,” he told his audience at the Young America’s Foundation conference on Wednesday. “They were all, ‘We’re mad at you,’ ” he said with a mock whine, then gave a who-cares shrug. “I asked them one simple question: If I had voted no, what would I have been voting for? And they couldn’t answer that.”

West sounded downright moderate as he explained his new reasonableness. “One of the things that I think conservatives have a problem with is what I call incrementalism,” he told the students. “We believe that when we run a marathon and we start at mile zero, we’re automatically supposed to be at 26.2, but I tell you there are miles in between. . . . What are those incremental steps that get us there?”

Tea party Republicans are rightly credited with bringing the nation to the brink of default, but as West’s softening shows, the number of true diehards may be small. There are enough to cause havoc in the House and to push policy to the right, but it’s worth noting that 174 of 240 House Republicans defied the tea party to support the debt compromise.

West, in his speech to the YAF, recalled his father saying that “an empty wagon makes a lot of noise,” which the lawmaker said means that “people who don’t have a lot between their heads run their mouths a lot.” After awkwardly greeting his hosts (“I take a hat tip off to you”), West made a great deal of noise.

He proclaimed that President Obama appears “incompetent.” He stood by his criticism of Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as “vile,” “despicable” and “not a lady.” He said Democrats are seeking to “enslave your conscience.” He opined: “The number one thing about socialist ideology is to nationalize production, and that’s exactly what you see happening.”

West’s image is built on martial imagery; the student introducing him recounted an episode in Iraq in which West fired his pistol near the head of a man he was interrogating. But by the end of the talk, West sounded less like an ideological warrior than a career politician explaining how Republicans could build majorities.

“My fear is that on our side we fail to understand that when Michelangelo was given a big piece of rock, the next day he did not have the David,” the congressman said. “You’ve got to chip away at this thing.”

West encouraged Republicans to “come up with a 70 to 75 percent plan,” because “if you sit around trying to come up with a 100 percent plan, while you’re doing that the enemy has already attacked you and run through you.”

Particularly if their bayonets are mounted.

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