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Confessions of a Tea Party Casualty

Why GOP Rep. Bob Inglis is looking for a new job.

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

It was the middle of a tough primary contest, and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) had convened a small meeting with donors who had contributed thousands of dollars to his previous campaigns. But this year, as Inglis faced a challenge from tea party-backed Republican candidates claiming Inglis wasn't sufficiently conservative, these donors hadn't ponied up. Inglis' task: Get them back on the team. "They were upset with me," Inglis recalls. "They are all Glenn Beck watchers." About 90 minutes into the meeting, as he remembers it, "They say, 'Bob, what don't you get? Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.'" Inglis didn't know how to respond.

As he tells this story, the veteran lawmaker is sitting in his congressional office, which he will have to vacate in a few months. On June 22, he was defeated in the primary runoff by Spartanburg County 7th Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, who had assailed Inglis for supposedly straying from his conservative roots, pointing to his vote for the bank bailout and against George W. Bush's surge in Iraq. Inglis, who served six years in Congress during the 1990s as a conservative firebrand before being reelected to the House in 2004, had also ticked off right-wingers in the state's 4th Congressional District by urging tea-party activists to "turn Glenn Beck off" and by calling on Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) to apologize for shouting "You lie!" at Obama during the president's State of the Union address. For this, Inglis, who boasts (literally) a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, received the wrath of the tea party, losing to Gowdy 71 to 29 percent. In the weeks since, Inglis has criticized Republican House leaders for acquiescing to a poisonous, tea party-driven "demagoguery" that he believes will undermine the GOP's long-term credibility. And he's freely recounting his frustrating interactions with tea party types, while noting that Republican leaders are pushing rhetoric tainted with racism, that conservative activists are dabbling in anti-Semitic conspiracy theory nonsense, and that Sarah Palin celebrates ignorance.

The week after that meeting with his past funders—whom he failed to bring back into the fold—Inglis asked House Republican leader John Boehner what he would have told this group of Obama-bashers. Inglis recalls what happened:

[Boehner] said, "I would have told them that it's not quite that bad. We disagree with him on the issues." I said, "Hold on Boehner, that doesn't work. Let me tell you, I tried that and it did not work." I said [to Boehner], "If you're going to lead these people and the fearful stampede to the cliff that they're heading to, you have to turn around and say over your shoulder, 'Hey, you don't know the half of it.'"

In other words, feed and fuel the anger and paranoia of the right.

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During his primary campaign, Inglis repeatedly encountered enraged conservatives whom he couldn't—or wouldn't—satisfy. Shortly before the runoff primary election, Inglis met with about a dozen tea party activists at the modest ranch-style home of one of them. Here's what took place:

I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there's a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings, and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, "What the heck are you talking about?" I'm trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, "You don't know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don't know this?!" And I said, "Please forgive me. I'm just ignorant of these things." And then of course, it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff. And now you have the feeling of anti-Semitism here coming in, mixing in. Wow.

Later, Inglis mentioned this meeting to another House member: "He said, 'You mean you sat there for more than 10 minutes?' I said, 'Well, I had to. We were between primary and runoff.' I had a two-week runoff. Oh my goodness. How do you..." Inglis trails off, shaking his head.

While he was campaigning, Inglis says, tea party activists and conservative voters kept pushing him to describe Obama as a "socialist." But, he says, "It's a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible...This guy is no socialist." He continues:

The word is designed to have emotional charge to it. Throughout my primary, there were people insisting that I use the word. They would ask me if he was a socialist, and I would always find some other word. I'd say, "President Obama wants a very large government that I don't think will work and that spends too much and it's inefficient and it compromises freedom and it's not the way we want to go." They would listen for the word, wait to see if I used the s-word, and when I didn't, you could see the disappointment.

Why not give these voters what they wanted? Inglis says he wasn't willing to lie:

I refused to use the word because I have this view that the Ninth Commandment must mean something. I remember one year Bill Clinton—the guy I was out to get [when serving on the House judiciary committee in the 1990s]—at the National Prayer Breakfast said something that was one of the most profound things I've ever heard from anybody at a gathering like that. He said, "The most violated commandment in Washington, DC"—everybody leaned in; do tell, Mr. President—"is, 'Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'" I thought, "He's right. That is the most violated commandment in Washington." For me to go around saying that Barack Obama is a socialist is a violation of the Ninth Commandment. He is a liberal fellow. I'm conservative. We disagree...But I don't need to call him a socialist, and I hurt the country by doing so. The country has to come together to find a solution to these challenges or else we go over the cliff.

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