Guinta Smoothes Things Over with Tea Party

This column first appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader on August 12, 2011:

Keeping on the right side of the Tea Party is a priority for U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta. The freshman representative embraced the Tea Party movement sooner than other Republicans, and support from the new activists may have made the difference in Guinta’s narrow primary victory a year ago.

Monday night, Guinta spoke to nearly 100 Tea Party-oriented conservatives at a meeting hosted by the Rochester 9/12 group to address grumblings on the right about his vote to increase the debt ceiling. In an impressive performance, Guinta fielded more than 20 questions over 90 minutes, disarmed most of his critics, and successfully persuaded the group he’s still on their side.

“This was so far the most difficult vote I’ve had to make,” Guinta began. When the Senate shelved Speaker John Boehner’s plan, it came down to a choice of, “Do I stand for ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance’ or for something reasonable?”

Tea Partiers aren’t known for their pragmatism about “reasonable” compromises. The spending cuts weren’t big enough and will never materialize anyway, they argued. “You people in Washington talk about reducing budgets when in fact you’re reducing the rate of growth,” said Dave Mincin, state representative from Barrington. “We lost the debate and the legislation,” charged Steve Fontaine, leader of the Madbury/Lee/Barrington Tea Party.

Guinta countered that House Republicans succeeded in changing the debate.

“No one’s talking about raising spending or raising taxes” anymore, Guinta argued. Now the debate is about cutting spending. Everyone here’s for a balanced budget. We just differ over strategy about how to achieve it, Guinta tried.

This didn’t satisfy an attendee from Middleton. “It’s either you or the House leadership that has to change,” he proclaimed, urging Guinta to support a new Speaker to be chosen from among 22 Republicans who voted against the Boehner bill. Guinta pretended he didn’t know if any of the 22 were running, and decided this wasn’t a good time to mention that Speaker Boehner appeared at a recent Bedford fundraiser for Guinta. Only later did Guinta defend the Speaker, reminding the group that Boehner is considered a conservative.

If you ever need a constitutional expert, you can be sure to find one at a Tea Party event. State Rep. Laura Jones of Rochester claimed that the twelve-member deficit reduction panel created by the compromise amounts to an unconstitutional “Super Congress.” Guinta disagreed, noting that joint legislative committees are common and recommendations are voted on by both houses. Jones went home unconvinced, posting afterwards on Facebook, “Since Frank believes the Super Congress is constitutional, he isn’t qualified to serve.”

Some conservatives are happiest when they are angry, so Guinta sought to unite the group against common enemies. “We can do anything in the House. We have the votes in the House,” Guinta assured the group. The problem occurs when legislation goes to the other side of the Capitol. “We don’t have a Senate. We don’t have a President who supports the values we all share.”

The audience went for that bait. A questioner from Amherst asserted to applause that President Obama is managing the decline of the United States “on purpose.” Another wanted to impeach the President over the use of military force in Libya. A Barrington resident advanced the discredited birther conspiracy. Guinta opted not to dispute any of these assertions, but encouraged everyone to work for Obama’s defeat next year.

A Guinta mention of Sen. John Kerry, who blamed the Tea Party for a downgrade of U.S. credit, elicited derisive laughter. Then Guinta took a gratuitous shot at Sen. John McCain — never a Tea Party favorite — saying, “I wasn’t happy with his comments, either.”

“Their strategy is to split and divide the Tea Party,” Guinta warned. Noticeable for its absence amid all the complaints about the Senate was any criticism by Guinta of Senator Jeanne Shaheen.

Guinta won most of them over. Any tension that had been present at the start of the meeting was gone by the time Paul Gagnon of the Manchester 9/12 group rose to offer one of the final comments. “Everything you’ve said today is the old Frank we remember,” he said approvingly. Heads nodded around the room, soon followed by a standing ovation.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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