Tea Party

08.14.11

The Four Freshmen’s Debt Stand

Tea Partiers are being hammered for their debt-ceiling intransigence, but South Carolina representatives Tim Scott, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, and Trey Gowdy are being hailed at home for fighting the deal. David A. Graham on what may be a career-preserving vote for all four.

The aftermath of the debt-ceiling debate hasn’t been kind to some members of the Tea Party. Movement standard-bearers like Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) have been heckled in town-hall meetings back home. Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the nation’s credit rating was widely seen as targeted at conservative intransigence on budgetary matters. And nationwide, record numbers of voters say the Tea Party is a negative influence on politics—even as support sinks.

But in South Carolina, where all seven Republican members voted against the final debt deal and an earlier deal backed by fellow Republican Speaker John Boehner, the debate has made heroes of four freshmen representatives: Tim Scott, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, and Trey Gowdy. The first-termers’ refusal to bend to their party’s leadership in the face of intense pressure appears to be a turning point for the men, both as politicians and as friends.

“These guys are heroes in the eyes of the voters down here,” said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University and longtime Republican strategist. “It’s a very conservative state.”

The members of the group—dubbed the “Four Freshmen,” echoing the 1950s vocal group, or the “Four Horsemen,” a slightly less flattering reference—have been friends since the start of their term. Scott, Mulvaney, and Duncan knew each other from time spent in the state legislature, while Gowdy soon fell in. “We really got to know each other best during orientation,” says Gowdy. “I guess by virtue of the fact that we understand each other’s accents, we found ourselves sitting together.”

Their bond deepened after Scott, already a Tea Party rock star before his election, invited the other three to visit the Port of Charleston, the economic heart of his district. Similar visits in the other three districts soon followed, and they also have appeared at each other’s fundraisers. Duncan and Scott live together; all men are between 44 and 46; Gowdy, who turns 47 later this month, “is the senior citizen,” Mulvaney jokes. Although their earlier votes had differed on key measures, including the joint-strike fighter engine, they often functioned as a team.

“‘I voted that way because Mr. Boehner asked me to’ is not a good answer back home,” Mulvaney says.

Nonetheless, the debt-ceiling vote constituted a crucial test. After Boehner was forced to withdraw a vote on his plan when he lacked votes, Republican leaders sprang into action, employing a combination of emotional persuasion, intellectual argument, and good, old-fashioned political arm-twisting to get a majority.

What that pressure entailed depends on whom you ask, but it was apparently intense, with targeted representatives filing in and out of Boehner’s office during pizza-fueled late-night sessions. With earmarks now banned, leaders can’t buy off members with juicy appropriations as they used to. Mulvaney says there was plenty of pressure, implied or explicit, about committee assignments and fundraising help from the national party, while Gowdy says he wasn’t worried about arm-twisting but struggled with the knowledge that he was disappointing leaders he looks up to. Duncan says the most intense approbation came not from Boehner and his team but from other Republicans who backed the deal and were upset by the South Carolinians’ stand. While all four say they felt their relationship with the speaker was strengthened by the ordeal, Scott concedes that there were hard feelings among some rank-and-file members of the GOP caucus.

The four found safety and support in each other. “There were times when the four of us were sitting in a room staring at each other and thinking, ‘Are we the only ones? Are we missing something?’” Gowdy says. The leadership hoped to flip at least one of the five South Carolinians (the other is Rep. Joe Wilson of “You lie!” fame) but ultimately failed to do so. “They didn’t split us up that night, and if they didn’t split us then, I don’t think they will,” Mulvaney says.

The final decision to oppose the plan was a matter of putting constituents before leaders, the group says, and without a commitment to Cut, Cap, and Balance, the Four Freshmen were out. “‘I voted that way because Mr. Boehner asked me to’ is not a good answer back home,” Mulvaney says.

Indeed, the nay may be a career-preserving vote for all four. The state’s conservatives are taking no prisoners: in 2010 South Carolinians turned out Bob Inglis, a Republican with a lifetime rating of 93 from the American Conservative Union. They voted down Gresham Barrett, the gubernatorial frontrunner, in retribution for his vote in favor of TARP in the House. Gowdy, who took Inglis’ seat, and Duncan both faced primary opponents who had Tea Party support.

Woodard and other sources say word in the state is that Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the more strident Tea Party voices, reminded the four on the eve of the vote that they would likely face challenges from the right if they voted yes, suggesting that they might not have the backing of the state’s most powerful figure if that happened. DeMint’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and Scott and Mulvaney did not respond to a query about the issue. Duncan said he would not discuss private meetings within the delegation, and a spokesman for Gowdy said his vote was decided prior to the meeting and that the group discussed strategy for a proposed balanced-budget amendment.

Regardless of the reason, conservative activists are pleased. Jim Lee, a conservative activist who lost to Gowdy in a primary in 2010, said there was certainly a risk of primary challenges. However, “folks are very, very pleased and believe that the delegation is aware of the message that was sent in 2010. It’s unfortunate that the [Republican] leadership doesn’t seem to comprehend how much the grassroots don’t want business as usual.”

That’s not to say everyone is happy. Some moderate Republicans remain unsettled about the hard-right direction the state’s delegation has taken. In Charleston, the Post and Courier published an editorial gently rapping the holdouts’ knuckles for their failure “to recognize a victory when they see it.” And there have been some upset calls to congressional offices, although each of the four said the vast majority of feedback had been positive.

But even the few Democrats left in the Palmetto State seem to have accepted that they’ve lost the politics—even if they still disdain the policy. “They get poor white or middle-class South Carolinians to vote against their own interests,” says Dick Harpootlian, the famously colorful chairman of the state Democratic Party. “They want to make a political, philosophical point. They don’t care who gets hurt or what happens to the country. None of these guys have patriotism in them.”

Harpootlian says the political windfall will be short-lived and backfire on the state and the party, and he predicts defeat for at least one of the GOP members in 2012. He compares the delegation’s stand against the debt deal to the state’s ultimately ruinous secession from the union. “South Carolina has a history of doing stupid, ridiculous, and vain things under the guise of principle,” Harpootlian quips. “If you remember Fort Sumter, that’s probably a pretty good example.”

But there could be less hyperbolic but more concrete ramifications. With federal spending slashed, states and municipalities will be under more pressure, and South Carolina already has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, at 10.5 percent. John Spratt, former chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, represented the state for 28 years in Congress before losing to Mulvaney in 2010. He criticizes the vote both on economic grounds—“given when happened in the stock market, the death of that debt-ceiling measure, coupled with the S&P report, it could have been catastrophic for the economy”—and political grounds.

“The whole delegation voted against the Republican leadership. That’s bound to have an impact on what they can accomplish for South Carolina in the Congress,” Spratt says. “Having said that, I’m not sure what’s going to be available. In most political situations, it would have some repercussions.”

As for the Four Freshmen, they’re not too worried about it. Speaking from recess, they said returning home to widespread support was validating and made them feel good about their future as a team. But with the men’s names floated for loftier offices—whether Senate or perhaps the governor’s mansion in Columbia—what does the future hold? “I think ultimately we won’t form a band or anything like that—we don’t have that kind of talent,” Scott deadpans.