Joe's Road Trip 2012

Road Trip 2012, Day 3/4: Some Good Candidates Part II

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

Rep. Scott Rigell meets with Joe Klein in Rigell's office, 915 First Colonial Road, during Joe Klein's annual road trip in Virginia Beach, V.A., on Monday, June 4, 2012.

Virginia Beach, Va.

Scott Rigell is a freshman Republican from Virginia’s 2nd District, and he has done a remarkable thing: he has signed, then renounced, Grover Norquist’s No-Tax Pledge, and he may live to tell the tale. Stepping outside the lockstep Republican consensus on taxes is not an easy thing and Rigell, who owns a bunch of auto dealerships in the community, had to pull out an easel and a magic marker to explain how he came to the conclusion he did:

“You have to see it in context,” he says and writes “‘Bush’ tax cuts” on the board. He puts “Bush” in quotation marks because he doesn’t like using a President’s name pejoratively, to describe a program. He insists on calling “Obamacare” by its proper name: the Affordable Care Act. Anyhow, he writes: 16.9% on his pad. “That’s our average revenues over the past 11 years, and it’s a good firm figure–it includes good years and bad ones.” Revenues were up to 18% of GDP at the end of the housing bubble and down to 14.7% after the Wall Street bust. “Now can you tell me when the last time we ran a government with 16.9% revenues? 1956. Before Medicare and Medicaid.”

Another sheet of paper on the easel. Two big numbers go up on the board–historical averages for the past 50 years:

18.5% revenues

20.5% spending

“Our current rate of spending is 24%, which is very high, given the historical context.” (By the way, Rigell acknowledges that revenues may increase when the economy begins to grow and that current spending levels may be slightly bloated by increased money going to the unemployed. Indeed, he seems to make it a matter of personal honor that he makes a complete argument–our meeting lasts more than an hour, as he lays it out.)

When he realized these facts, he began to talk to senior economists, businesspeople and policy experts. “I talked to Warren Buffett,” he said–and that, in today’s Republican Party, is about as taboo as acknowledging the need to raise revenues. Another sheet of paper on the easel. Tw0 rows of numbers:

                20 21 22 23 24 
17 18 19 20

The top line is the Democrats’ range of revenue/spending numbers (Buffett falls in the 20-21 range). The second line is the Republican range. Rigell ran on 18%, he says, would hope for 19%, but could be dragged kicking and screaming to 20%. Obviously, it’s not so simple as that. (I didn’t have time to ask Rigell if he would get into debt for capital projects that would be paid off over time.) But it seems more than reasonable–actually, it seems shockingly reasonable–to me. “You haven’t asked about the reaction when I renounced the no-tax pledge,” he says. So I ask. “I wrestled with this for five months, didn’t tell anybody, then I told the [Virginia] Pilot-Reporter.” He makes this announcement before the Republican primary filing deadline. The next day, he gets an email first thing from the local GOP Chair: “Scott–thank you for your courage.”

Rigell is infuriated with President Obama–well, maybe not infuriated, but pretty miffed–for not taking public leadership on this issue. (In 2008, before he entered politics, an aide tells me, he contributed to both the Obama and McCain campaigns.) He’s not too pleased with his party or the Democrats, either. “I learned at Parris Island [Marine Corps basic training] that we weren’t black or white, from The Bronx or Florida, but that we were all green and we were all in this together. As a businessman, I learned that nothing happens unless you come to an agreement. I think we have a two, three-year window to straighten this out. I’m going to work on it until we do and then I’m going to go home.”

Now, I spent the first three days of this road trip listening to civilians–both liberal and conservative–say that politicians were just a bunch of lying goons, that should all be thrown out, that they were all whores. Those sorts of blanket statements have always disgusted me. I’ve known more than a few–indeed, plenty of–honorable politicians over the years. And for those who said that to me, and will do so during the next three weeks, I have a simple response: Scott Rigell. (I suspect that the two Democrats I wrote about below–Steve Wilkins and John Douglass–will find their way to the Caucus of Sanity as well.)