Thaddeus McCotter steps out as an unlikely Republican leader.
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It would also be a mistake to classify McCotter’s conservatism as Buchananite on the basis of these observations. There are circumstances in which he would back more legal immigration from people fleeing tyranny and oppression, as opposed to adding cheap labor to the available pool of workers. “We’re not looking for workers,” he says. “We’re looking for Americans.” While McCotter is not a free-trade absolutist, he did call for lifting President Bush’s steel tariffs (many of his constituents work in steel-using industries).
NOWHERE IS THE DISTINCTION CLEARER than on foreign policy. McCotter is a staunch proponent of showing a firm hand to tyrannical governments abroad, though he was not a knee-jerk supporter of the Bush administration’s handling of international affairs. While he favored regime change in Iraq, he does not believe the war was handled entirely correctly. “You can’t just drop a Green Zone in the middle of the country to administer the Great Society,” he says. In June 2006, McCotter voted “present” on a Republican resolution expressing support for the war and rejecting a timetable for withdrawal because it did not offer a full assessment of the “situation, stakes, and strategy for victory in the battle for Iraq and the overarching War on Terror.”
“In the Cold War, President Reagan had the moral courage to call Communist Russia an ‘evil empire,’ ” McCotter said at the time. “In the War on Terror, the U.S. House must have the moral courage to call al Qaeda our enemy.” He blasted the resolution as “strategically nebulous, morally obtuse, and woefully inadequate.”
There is nothing nebulous about McCotter’s impassioned denunciations of the “misogynistic, murderous regime” in Tehran after the disputed Iranian presidential election. “Your referendum has been held and you have failed your test…You have no legitimacy either in the eyes of the Iranian people or in the eyes of the civilized world. You are doomed by your own hands, and it is but a matter of time until your regime collapses and the Iranian people breathe free.”
Taking a page from the anti-Communists who called attention to the Soviets’ victims, McCotter has often given his House floor speeches denouncing Iran while standing next to pictures of those slain by Tehran — victims who tend to be young women. One was Taraneh Mousav. “She was arrested near Ghoba Mosque, where she was on her way to attend hairdressing college,” McCotter recounted in a floor speech. “After her arrest, she was raped, sodomized, and tortured by her captors, taken to a hospital in a coma, and it was there that she died. Upon her death, her body was removed to the outskirts of Karaj Qasim where, to prevent an autopsy, it was burned.”
Taraneh Mousav isn’t alone. McCotter gave a moving presentation on the House floor about another young woman. “Her name was Neda. In Farsi, it means ‘the voice,’” he said. “True to her name, she loved music; sought freedom; and she’s dead — shot down in the streets by the Iranian regime’s state-sanctioned murderers. She must not have died in vain.” McCotter then turned his ire toward the head of his own government.
McCotter blasted President Obama’s “contradictory statements of support and appeasement” and “ ’post-American’ foreign policy.” He continued: “As for the claim that American ‘meddling’ in support of the demonstrators plays into the mullahs’ hands, the Iranian regime will claim this regardless, for as our president noted, ‘That’s what they do.’” McCotter said emphatically, “what matters is not what the regime says about America, but what the demonstrators think about America.” He concluded: “As Americans, we must seize this moment and help Iranians seize their freedom. That’s what we do.”
“There weren’t a lot of Republicans down there giving those kinds of speeches either,” McCotter acknowledges. “There’s a lot of focus on the economy and domestic issues right now. I’m from Michigan — I get that. But this is an area where we need to show leadership too.” He points out that Ronald Reagan was a leader who could make this message clear to the American people, while also drawing a stark dividing line between our Russian friends and our enemy in the Soviet government.
CONGRESSMAN PAT TIBERI of Ohio says that McCotter represents an important part of the Reagan coalition that the GOP is going to have to win again to be a successful national party. “When my dad voted for Ronald Reagan, it was the first Republican he ever voted for,” Tiberi says. “He was a Catholic, a union worker, an immigrant. We need to reach voters like that who share our values but identify with the Democrats for demographic reasons.” McCotter, he says, “clearly and confidently communicates what he believes” in a way that “speaks to them.”
One reason, says Congressman King, is that unlike some other Republicans he is one of those voters. “Thad has a strong religious compass,” King explains. “But that doesn’t keep him from being understanding of other people’s day-to-day human failings.” McCotter’s sense of voters who might not agree with every item in a conservative think tank white paper “really gives us an opportunity to win in the industrial states.”
McCotter is not without conservative critics. Though he was the first Republican to come out against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, calling it “American socialism,” stricter free marketers have panned his votes for aid to the auto industry. John Zmirak, author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, thinks the congressman would benefit from paying closer attention to some of his intellectual heroes. “Wilhelm Röpke wrote during the Cold War, and favored a policy of firm containment of the Soviet Union, whose ideology he referred to as a ‘pseudo-Islam,’ ” says Zmirak. “However, he was never aligned with the advocates of ‘rollback,’ who were willing to risk nuclear war rather than wait out the slow, inevitable collapse of an economic system that violated human nature.” In today’s strategic situation, Zmirak contends, a “Röpke-style response” to radical Islam and Communist China would focus more on limited counterterrorism, border security, and restoration of the Afghan monarchy rather than the Bush Doctrine.
But McCotter is unapologetic. “I’ve seen the game of trying to purge Republicans of those who are ‘RINOs’ or not pure enough,” he says. “I have one question: How’d that work out for us?” In an article for Human Events, McCotter sounded the same theme: “All Republicans must work within the party to unite, expand, and renew it; not work outside it to purge, deplete, and ‘recreate’ it in one’s arbitrary image.” Asked his opinion of the Club for Growth — which has supported primary challenges against GOP moderates — McCotter says simply, “They are an interest group doing what an interest group is supposed to do. A political party is different.”
Democrats hope they can purge McCotter in the next election. He has been reelected by solid but not overwhelming margins against underfunded opponents — with 51.4 percent of the vote, he won by six points in 2008 and has yet to break 60 percent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has claimed to be targeting McCotter in 2010. The Swing State Project ranks him fifth on its “vulnerability index,” behind Republicans representing such Democratic districts as Joseph Cao’s in Louisiana. For his part, McCotter considers it “presumptuous” to predict the voting behavior of the “people I work for.”
McCotter’s admirers see him not as an endangered species but a harbinger of things to come. “Here’s a guy who’s bright, funny, and refreshing,” says Tiberi. “He likes rock music, he’s well read, he can relate to people you don’t think of as being Republicans. It challenges people’s perceptions of what a Republican is supposed to be.” A rock-n-roller stuck in a Republican’s body, McCotter seems to relish the challenge. Before our interview ends, he turns the tables by asking me why I never learned to play guitar. Not getting a satisfactory answer, the congressman says, “It’s not too late.”
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