Peter King’s lonely fight vs. ‘Ted Cruz wing’
By ALEXANDER BURNS | 10/6/13 4:25 PM EDT Updated: 10/7/13 3:13 PM EDT
If Peter King’s brand of Republicanism seems to be on the wane these days, the Long Island congressman isn’t letting it go quietly.
King, 69, has long been one of the Hill’s most quotable and irascible troublemakers, a frequent presence on cable television with an apparently boundless capacity for outrage. He has fumed over topics as serious as Hurricane Sandy relief and aid for Sept. 11 responders, and as comparatively trivial as the White House party crashers and the death of Michael Jackson (whom he called a “lowlife” and a “pervert.”) King broke with Newt Gingrich over the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s and earned the gratitude of the Clinton clan when he rebuked his own party for impeaching a president for sexual indiscretions.
So while it’s not a surprise that King would be one of the Republican Party’s most prominent internal critics these days, even the congressman’s friends say there’s a new intensity and urgency to the lawmaker’s indignation.
King has thundered away in recent months against what he calls the “Ted Cruz wing” of the Republican Party, criticizing the GOP’s libertarian drift on issues such as domestic surveillance and assailing what he views as the utter pointlessness of the House’s effort to defund Obamacare at the cost of a government shutdown. He has floated the idea of a 2016 presidential campaign largely out of opposition to the tea party crowd.
His frustration, friends say, reflects a deepening conviction that Republicans have lost touch with the working-class, middle-of-the-road voters who sent King to Congress in the first place, and who used to make Republican candidates for the Senate and the presidency competitive in downstate New York.
For a veteran pol like King, the plain reality is, there has never been a lonelier time on the Hill to be a blue-collar Republican from Nassau County. When he tried to trigger a revolt against the shutdown this week, only one moderate-leaning Republican – Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent – joined the effort.
Speaking to POLITICO in his Capitol Hill office, King rejected the notion that he, rather than the great majority of his colleagues who have supported the shutdown, is out of step with the national Republican electorate.
“I don’t consider these guys conservatives. I think the party is going in an isolationist trend. It’s appealing to the lowest common denominator in many ways. And this whole threat of defunding the government, to me, is not conservative at all,” said King, who added later: “Maybe we do live in different worlds. These guys from the Ted Cruz wing live in their own echo chamber.”
The vast cultural gulf that separates King from many of his Republican colleagues is evident from a quick glance around the walls of his office. In a heavily Southern-inflected GOP conference, King is an Irish policeman’s son; he is surely the only member with photos of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca on his wall, and a piece of the destroyed Secret Service office at 7 World Trade Center on his desk.
Yet King insists he is not the outlier in the Republican-held House. On the contrary, he argues, his district has a mix of voters that more closely approximates a winning national electorate than those of most of his GOP colleagues.
“It basically would be right-of-center Republicans and Reagan Democrats, people who belong to building trade unions, cops, firefighters, middle-class families who are fighting to get ahead, but also realize that life isn’t that simple,” King said. “There’s a big building trade constituency in Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance. I think a blue-collar conservative could carry Pennsylvania for president, could carry Ohio, for instance, but we alienate those groups.”
His current breach with the national GOP stems from a profoundly resonant local issue: aid for Hurricane Sandy, which the House delayed approving and ultimately cleared against opposition from dozens of his Republican colleagues. At the time, King called on New York donors to snub the National Republican Congressional Committee; he has denounced Republican opponents of Sandy aid, such as Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who have visited the Empire State since then.
That wound is clearly still raw for King, who alluded in the interview to how “politicians walk around with their arms around each other saying how much they love their colleague, like guys always did to me until they screwed me on Sandy.” He noted that Colorado Republicans who opposed Sandy relief didn’t have any reservations about seeking federal money for flood aid in their state.
Former Sen. Al D’Amato, a longtime King ally and the last Republican to represent New York in the Senate, said his fellow Long Islander was right to slap around his GOP cohorts — first for disrespecting New York, and now for steering the party into a dead-end confrontation with Obama.
“It was a ploy that has obviously failed, and even the yahoos must realize that it has failed,” said D’Amato, who grumbled that “the Northeast in particular [isn’t] held in high esteem by some of our Republican colleagues.”
“You have 100 or so Republicans who are afraid to stand up because they don’t want a challenge from the tea party, from the right,” D’Amato continued. “For those Republicans who are afraid to vote the right way because they’re afraid of a challenge, they should be thrown out of office. They don’t deserve to be there.”
In some respects, the tension between King and his fellow Republicans has less to do with ideology than with sharply divergent approaches to the basics of politics.
King has criticized his party on tactical matters and voted with Democrats on issues like gun control; but he has also voted against Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank banking bill and Democratic climate legislation. He drew furious criticism from liberals (and not only from liberals) for holding hearings on the possible radicalization of Muslim Americans after Sept. 11.
Yet in an age when all politics is national, when GOP congressional candidates stand to gain more from appearing on Fox News than from courting the local firefighter’s union, King remains a steadfastly local politician. He is currently reading the memoirs of former New York City Mayor David Dinkins (his copy is signed by the author) and many of his friends in Congress have been Democrats who share his Irish-American heritage, rather than Republicans who share his political views.
“Peter’s perspective, given his background, given the fact that he’s from Long Island and New York — a Reagan Democrat is how I’d describe him — means he’s right a lot more often than he’s wrong in terms of the trend for Republicans,” said former Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan, now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, the senior Democrat and dean of his state’s delegation, told a POLITICO reporter he was entirely unsurprised to see his colleague going rogue on the GOP yet again.
“Oh, Peter’s an old Irishman,” Rangel said. “If he was in our party, he would be doing the same thing — terribly independent and honest and sincere.”
That independence could extend to the 2016 presidential race, King said, if his party nominates a candidate in the mold of Cruz or Paul. Though he plays down the possibility, it’s conceivable that he could end up being his party’s answer to Zell Miller, the fiery Georgia Democrat who endorsed George W. Bush for reelection in 2004 and authored a manifesto about the death of the Democratic Party in the South.
“Sometimes party loyalty can demand too much,” King said, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy. “That’s one of the reasons I’m speaking out, also, so that the average person out there does not think that Ted Cruz is the Republican Party or Rand Paul is the Republican Party.”
But King hopes it doesn’t come to a full-scale break with the GOP and finds it hard to imagine flatly opposing his party’s nominee in any case. And there’s at least one Republican in the 2016 field he professes to admire.
“If I end up running for president, I may be an opponent of Chris Christie,” King said. “But here’s a guy who is very conservative but he doesn’t antagonize. He has the support of building trade unions. He appeals to blue-collar people, independent voters.”
MJ Lee contributed to this report.