IT TOOK A high-profile failure for the D.C. establishment and big Pennsylvania Democrats to recognize that Toomey wasn’t just another Tea Party foot soldier.
In August 2011, Toomey was named to one of three GOP Senate positions on the so-called Super Committee, the bipartisan panel charged with the near-impossible job of coming up with a deficit reduction plan that both parties could live with. Toomey was picked to fill the role of Republican bad cop. His selection was meant to assure the conservative base that the GOP wouldn’t get steamrolled, and signaled to Democrats that there was little chance they would get big tax hikes on the rich as part of any deal.
After about three months of futile backroom discussions, the Super Committee was ready to announce it had failed, as most Washington observers had expected all along. And then Pat Toomey—the freshman senator—offered a compromise that for a fleeting moment looked like the ticket to a $15 trillion deficit deal both sides could swallow. His package was heavy on spending cuts (epic ones, in fact), but it also made a nod to the Democratic holy grail of new tax revenue—$300 billion worth.
“I was bending over backwards,” Toomey says from his office in the Hart Senate Office Building. He laughs, tightly. Six months have passed since then, but the memory still grates at him. “We were willing to do some really hard things. Putting additional revenue on the table is about as excruciating as it gets for Republicans.”
Democrats wanted more than the $300 billion. A lot more, so they rejected his offer, and the committee folded soon after. Still, the episode worked to Toomey’s enormous political advantage. It earned him a spot on the talk-show circuits. And the attempt at compromise made middle-of-the-road Democrats take notice of him, not just in Washington, but back home in Pennsylvania, too. “Pat has his beliefs, and he has the capacity to defend them incredibly well, but there’s a pragmatic side to him,” says David L. Cohen, the Comcast executive and Democratic power broker. “He’s not an ideologue. He’s a legislator.”
That may sound like faint praise, but Cohen means it lavishly. Legislators—people capable of putting together a majority, perhaps even a bipartisan majority—are increasingly rare in Washington, D.C. But Toomey just may be one.
It helps that he comes across as indifferent on the divisive social questions. Yes, he opposes abortion, objects to any form of further gun control, and believes gay marriage is wrong, but these issues don’t animate the man. When asked why not, he dodges the question for a spiel on the dangers of socializing the economy. “I’m focused on the massive expansion of government,” Toomey says. “What this administration is trying to do is very damaging to our future. It threatens our way of life, it really does.”
And that’s about as extreme as Toomey’s rhetoric gets. Most Democrats find ludicrous the idea that the pursuit of longtime policy goals like universal health care, tougher environmental safeguards and stepped-up Wall Street regulations is antithetical to the American Way. (These are, after all, the same objectives pursued by every Democrat in the White House since FDR, not to mention Richard Nixon.) But Toomey’s Obama critique is milquetoast compared to the bizarro birther-Kenyan-anti-colonialist-Muslim hysteria that has infected so many on the right.
Still, Toomey isn’t about to bash the Tea Party. He declined to join the organization’s Senate caucus, but has benefited too much from its rise to belittle the movement, even when asked directly about its more frothy elements. “I think you’ve got to be careful about characterizing the Tea Party,” he says, speaking carefully. “It runs the gamut in terms of the profile of those people and their style and manner and that sort of thing.”