Ten minutes into my first interview with Pat Toomey, the terrifying reality sinks in: I am in no way prepared to tangle with this guy. He’s perfectly pleasant and courteous. But that doesn’t change the fact that in his somewhat grating, nasally monotone, Toomey is taking a hatchet to my questions as well as my assumptions about him. I’d been expecting a radical. What I didn’t expect was that the radical would be so damned convincing. Yet here I am, a Philadelphia journalist raised in the liberal bubble of San Francisco, and already Pat Toomey has me grudgingly nodding in agreement. Afterward, I actually pick up a copy of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom—which he’d mentioned in an offhand kind of way, as though of course I’d read it—the better to arm myself for future conversations with the man.
That was in March 2004, long before Hayek’s free-markets-forever ideology had been popularized in viral rap videos. Back then, the prevailing Republican view on domestic policy was still the quasi-compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush, and according to the leading GOP figures of the day, “Deficits don’t matter.”
Toomey was an obscure congressman from Allentown, in the middle of what was supposed to be a hopeless primary campaign against Senator Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican whose politics had long been a perfect fit for purple Pennsylvania. The analysts agreed: Toomey was smart and disciplined (if a bit stilted on the stump), but he was just too fringe to be a threat to a super-incumbent like Specter. On election night, though, Toomey didn’t make his concession speech until 12:45 a.m. His conservative insurrection had been just over 17,000 votes short of knocking out a four-term legend.
Eight years later, the Toomey-Specter campaign is seen as a prelude to the Tea Party movement and the first big battle in a GOP civil war that has all but eliminated Republican moderates from the national stage. The campaign made Toomey a darling of the conservative intelligentsia, elevated him to the presidency of the influential anti-tax group Club For Growth, and set him up for another run for the Senate in 2010 (this one successful, after a spooked Specter switched parties and lost the primary).
Today, Toomey is the most prominent Pennsylvania Republican in Washington, D.C.—one whose credentials as a conservative are unquestioned, owing mostly to the fact that he was howling about the deficit and fiscal discipline more than a decade before the majority of his party took up the tune. There is even talk that he would make a fine vice presidential pick, the perfect choice to ease the anxiety of conservatives who worry that a onetime Massachusetts moderate like Mitt Romney might go squishy.
Toomey’s rapid ascent—from the periphery to the vanguard of the national GOP—has little to do with his own evolution. He’s changed hardly at all since 2004. He has the same alarmingly white teeth, and a lean, rigid bearing that calls to mind a retired military man. (He comes by that through temperament, not a service record.) He’s 50 years old, and the lines on his steep forehead have deepened into trenches, but otherwise Toomey is much the same. And so are his politics.
The nature of the Republican Party, though, has changed dramatically. Toomey might have been a radical by the mainstream GOP standards of 2004, but in 2012, stacked up against the likes of Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann, Toomey comes across as the most sober adult in the Republican room.
Combine that with the admirable rigor he brings to his thinking about public policy, and it’s no wonder leading Pennsylvania Democrats have come to view Toomey as a worthy adversary, and perhaps even a partner—some of the time. Ed Rendell says, “Pat Toomey has got a chance to emerge as one of the constructive conservatives who are willing to be realistic.” And Alan Kessler, one of the leading Democratic fund-raisers in the nation and a finance chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, says, “Quite frankly, we need more Pat Toomeys.”
Which means for now, Toomey is pulling off a trick that is supposed to be impossible in our poisonously partisan politics: keeping the trust of his base while winning the respect of at least some of his political opponents. And that gives him a chance to be one of the most powerful players Pennsylvania has sent to Washington in a very long time.
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.”
TO LOOK AT his background, one would guess Toomey to be a Democrat. He was born the third child in a Catholic family of six, with a union-worker dad (Patrick Sr.) who laid cable for the local electric utility and a mom who answered phones at the neighborhood parish. A portrait of John F. Kennedy hung from the wall in the family kitchen. The Toomeys lived in a densely packed blue-collar suburb just across the narrow Narragansett Bay from Providence, Rhode Island.
By all accounts, the young Toomey was as diligent as he was gifted. He won a scholarship to the elite La Salle Academy in Providence (which counts four U.S. senators among its alumni) and graduated as valedictorian. Already, Toomey says, he was figuring out he didn’t view the world quite the same way as his Democratic dad. When his teachers brought up American culpability in the Cold War, Toomey smelled a bogus moral equivalence. After he graduated and enrolled at Harvard, Toomey recoiled instinctively at the contempt everyone on campus seemed to share for Ronald Reagan.
But it wasn’t until after college, when he took a job as a hot-shot investment banker on Wall Street, that Toomey’s ideology firmed up. He was a 24-year-old Master of the Universe dealing in derivatives a quarter-
century before the rest of us had even heard the term, and before long, he wedded what he’d learned on the job about the flow of capital and the wealth it created with the pro-market philosophies of Milton Friedman and Hayek. “Reading them, it was like a light went off: Yep, these guys are right,” he says.
In Toomey’s view, taxes (and to some extent the government itself) are the natural enemies of prosperity; excessive regulation, entitlement programs, subsidies, tariffs and so on ad infinitum thwart growth, to the expense of all. The economy is best served, Toomey says, when the government regulates as little as possible, spends as little as possible, avoids deficits as much as possible, and generally gets out of the way of the
private sector, including Wall Street.
He bases this in large part on his own experience, which includes the year he spent in Hong Kong researching capital markets for Chinese billionaire Ronnie Chan. “The bank’s attitude was, we’re going to give you a certain amount of capital. Don’t break any laws, don’t break our rules, but otherwise go knock yourself out and make money for the firm,” he says in his office 20 years later. “We had a lot of fun.”
And then, abruptly, Toomey got out of the fast lane. He quit after the 1991 stint in Hong Kong and moved to Allentown, a city he’d never lived in before, to help two of his brothers run a sports bar called Rookie’s with a menu featuring Mexican fiesta dip and fried mozzarella “bats.”
When I ask Toomey what triggered his extreme lifestyle transformation—a family illness, a girl, a crisis of conscience?—he laughs it off: “You think it’s not a natural sequence? To go from Cambridge to Manhattan to Hong Kong to Allentown?” He knew, vaguely, that he wanted a family, and Allentown seemed a better choice for that than pre-Giuliani New York, where crime was high and Toomey felt constantly assaulted by aggressive squeegee guys and panhandlers.
This seems like a thin reason to trade the jet-setting life of an international investment banker for that of an Allentown restaurateur. But Toomey isn’t the sort to open up about his private life, beyond the surface optics of showing off his handsome family. As I wait outside his office for an interview, Toomey walks out with his adorable two-year-old son Duncan in his arms. Toomey and his wife, Kris—a homemaker who was the childhood friend of one of Toomey’s sisters—have three children. Unlike a lot of senators, Toomey hasn’t moved his family to D.C.; they’re still in Zionsville, a suburb of Allentown. “Since my big guy is here today, I thought I should introduce you,” Toomey says. “Duncan, can you say hi?” Instead, Duncan says, “Mommy.” Half an hour later, Toomey volunteers that “the biggest part of me is my family,” but sputters when asked to elaborate: “It’s just the most important thing. And it’s just where a lot of my time and energy goes.”
THAT SAME DAY, Toomey meets Jim Kail, the president of a tiny rural telecom company in western Pennsylvania. Kail doesn’t like a recent Federal Communications Commission decision—he says it benefits the telecom giants at the expense of little guys like him—and wants Toomey to intervene. Kail makes a sympathetic petitioner: He has rough working-man hands, he looks uncomfortable in his suit, and he’s brought his 20-something son with him to the meeting. Together, they’re the embodiment of heartland small business afflicted by the odious overregulation of Obama’s America. Or at least, that’s how they hope Toomey will see them.
But they’ve misjudged their mark. The senator listens courteously for a while, until he picks up on the fact that Kail’s entire business model is utterly dependent on a federally mandated 15.7 percent fee paid by phone service providers to the Universal Service Fund. The fund subsidizes companies like Kail’s that serve sparsely populated areas where the huge costs of building out telecom infrastructure aren’t justified by the small customer base. It’s a classic example of government interference in the marketplace, only Republicans generally don’t mind this $9 billion program, as it tends to benefit communities that vote GOP. When Kail lets it slip that 40 percent of his company’s revenue comes from this subsidy, Toomey’s eyebrows shoot up: “That much?” he says. Sensing trouble, Kail replies, “Look, I’m all for the free market. We don’t accept handouts.” No handouts beyond that 40 percent, he means.
Toomey chews on the end of his glasses. Then he says, “I really wonder whether we should be doing this in the first place.” Kail’s face crumples. Toomey goes on in that relentless, logical way of his: “To what extent should one group of Americans be forced to subsidize another group of Americans who chose to live in places where some services are expensive?”
This sort of consistency is one of the things that make Toomey an appealing figure. Back in the Bush days, when the rest of the GOP had no problem with deficits, Toomey was a lonely “no” vote on some of the costliest initiatives, like the Medicare prescription drug expansion. And unlike a lot of Republicans—who even now exempt the Department of Defense from their austerity plans—Toomey thinks the Pentagon needs a haircut too, and says so in the comprehensive 10-year federal spending plan he’s introduced two years running.
Toomey’s budget isn’t as well-known as Representative Paul Ryan’s, but it’s not as divisive, either, in that it leaves Medicare and Social Security (for now, at least) largely untouched in a nod to the current political reality.
But that same budget—which purports to balance the books within eight years—also shows the limits of Toomey’s appeal to those less convinced than he is that unfettered markets and lower taxes are the answers to America’s problems. It would knock out $2.7 trillion in federal health-care spending, whack welfare by $745 billion, and reduce discretionary spending to 2006 levels (and keep it there for the next eight years). All, of course, while cutting corporate taxes, preserving the much-debated Bush tax cuts, and lowering personal income taxes another 20 percent across the board.
In other words, as even-keeled as Toomey’s tone may be, his agenda remains extraordinarily conservative by historical standards. The fact that despite this, Democrats increasingly see him as someone they can do business with tells us first that Toomey is very, very good. But more than that, it shows just how effective the Tea Party has been in moving the boundaries of the national conversation in the years since President Obama’s election. Toomey may not have budged much, but his party sure has. Remarkably, in today’s GOP, Pat Toomey is the moderate.