"I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it," Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia griped over lunch last month at the GOP-run Capitol Hill Club. "All I did was agree to fly aboard Air Force One and talk to the president and for that I got "¦"
"Hammered," said Chris Connelly, chief of staff to the Republican lawmaker. "Hammered," Rigell repeated. "Hammered by my own people."
Before we could finish our conversation about the dangers of moderation in modern-day politics, Rigell's cell phone vibrated on the white-clothed table. "It's Rand Paul," he said, jumping up from his chair to take a scheduled call from the tea-party star and freshman senator from Kentucky. "Hello, Senator," Rigell said, walking away from our table for privacy. "Can we talk guns?"
I didn't know it at the time but I had happened to catch Rigell at his career's most important hour, precisely as he sought to extricate himself from a political vise. On the federal budget and guns, Rigell stayed true to his conservative roots but had the uncommon audacity to insist upon facts, reason, and common sense.
And for that, he was punished.
This column is not just about Rigell. This one House member's tale is sadly emblematic of what ails Washington today: hyper-partisanship in politics and new media; powerful and unaccountable interest groups; vast amounts of undocumented money; and a Congress corrupted by the system.
Trouble began for Rigell in late February when he received an invitation from the White House to fly on Air Force One and attend an event in his district. President Obama planned to discuss the effects of so-called sequestration cuts, his latest attempt to blame the budget standoff on Rigell's party.
"Please tell the president I accept with gratitude," Rigell told the White House aide.
Rigell knew he would be criticized by fellow conservatives for giving Obama political cover. Right-wing ideologues were already skeptical of the second-term lawmaker because he had disavowed an antitax pledge, voted to raise the debt ceiling, and opposed holding Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt (one of only two Republicans to do so). Rigell represents one of the dwindling few swing districts left.
But he agreed to travel with Obama for two reasons. First, he wanted to tell the president to his face that the White House had failed to lead on budget negotiations. Obama needs to honestly embrace spending cuts and entitlement reforms, Rigell insisted, to extract any new revenue from Republicans.
Secondly, Rigell holds a quaint view that, until the recent past, was universally accepted in Washington. "He is," Rigell said, "my president."
Conservative commentators, their numbers and power dramatically increased in the past decade or so, derided Rigell as a sap, a sellout, and a "RINO" or "Republican in name only." Negative calls and e-mails poured into his office. Still, Rigell was confident he could reason with his constituents, aided by a detailed chart on the federal budget that he carted to town halls and local media interviews.
Then, a second shoe dropped. Coincidentally or not, two days after his trip with Obama, the gun lobby launched a harsh, effective, and factually bogus attack on Rigell. The National Association for Gun Rights aired radio ads and sent direct-mail fliers that falsely accused Rigell of backing a federal registry system and working hand in hand with Obama to seize guns.
Rigell's great crime, other than riding Air Force One, was to sponsor a benign antitrafficking bill that would outlaw "straw purchasing," the act of providing firearms to those who are unable to legally purchase weapons themselves. He is, after all, a lifelong NRA member with an A-minus rating from the group.
The NAGR positions itself to the right of the NRA, uncompromising on any gun regulation. Like many left- and right-wing interest groups, it operates in the dark and feeds on fear: Voters in Rigell's district do not know who funds the organization.
Rigell soon learned that one source of revenue was Paul, at least indirectly. The NAGR sent an e-mail to potential donors that opened with a note from the Kentucky senator urging recipients to support the "fine folks" at NAGR.
Rigell and his team made three assumptions. First, that Paul didn't know about the attacks on fellow Republicans (the NAGR also criticized House Majority Leader Eric Cantor). Second, that Paul was aiding the group so that he could tap into its mailing list for his political future (he is considering a presidential run). Third, that Paul would condemn the group's actions once he found out about them.
So Rigell asked Paul to call him "“ "Can we talk about guns?" In that telephone call at lunch, Paul told Rigell he didn't know about the NAGR attacks and would look into them. After a further exchange of notes, e-mails, and telephone calls between the two staffs, Paul refused Rigell's request to denounce the group.
"It was," Rigell said, "just indifference." In Rigell's eyes, Paul had failed a character test.
"I did not seek this — to have a public disagreement with him — but the consequences of where we're heading as a country are very serious, and we're all in this together," Rigell said.
Rigell is not the president or even a potential presidential candidate. But he is asking profound questions of Obama, of Paul, of his constituents, and of us "“ all voters. Is compromise and progress still possible in politics? Are both parties forever driven to the extremes? Will common sense, comity, and transparency regain their currency in Washington? Do facts matter?
"I cannot serve nor can I lead by fear," Rigell told me this week. "At some point, I will be making my last ride home from Washington. I don't know when that will be, but I have got to know that I've done all I could to get this country on the right path." This is the modest goal of a modest man stuck in a system that punishes common sense.