WASHINGTON — For decades, Republican politicians have sought the advice of Tom Cole — when he was chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, a political consultant, the secretary of state and, in the last decade, a congressman.
“He's an excellent political mechanic — one of the best,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said last week. “I never question his wisdom when he says something out of the norm. Whenever he comes up with something that I disagree with, I really take another look at it.”
Whether Republicans take another look at their views on tax hikes because of Cole's latest advice was a hot topic here last week.
Cole, R-Moore, suggested privately to Republicans that they accept President Barack Obama's plan to extend income tax cuts for 98 percent of U.S. taxpayers before they're set to expire at the end of December. That would effectively allow tax rates for upper income Americans to rise.
Cole argued that he wasn't advocating for higher tax rates for the wealthy; he's against that. Instead, he said, the large majority of taxpayers should be taken out of harm's way while the president and Republicans grapple over how to get more tax revenue from those in the top tax brackets.
In an interview, Cole noted that the president already was conducting a public-relations campaign to blame Republicans if all of the tax cuts expire and middle-class Americans get hit with large tax bills next year.
He recalled last year's struggle over extending the payroll tax cut, a priority for the president. Republicans fought that and then bowed to public pressure and gave their approval.
Cole said his suggestion about accepting the middle-class tax cuts now came after a colleague asked how Republicans “are going to keep this from blowing up in our face.”
So far, few Republicans have expressed support for his position, though many Democrats have praised it. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed Cole's suggestion, saying it would mean a tax hike on the small business owners who file returns as individuals.
Despite his lack of GOP allies, Cole hasn't backed off. Nor has he hesitated to explain his position to the media; he's scheduled to appear Sunday on ABC's “This Week.”
Cole's involvement in Oklahoma Republican politics dates to the 1970s and the legislative campaigns of his mother, the late Helen Cole, who served from Moore in the state House and Senate.
He also worked for former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards and ran the Oklahoma re-election campaign for former President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, he was elected chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, building the party's finances and grass-roots organization before leaving to start his own consulting company with Sharon Hargrave Caldwell and Deby Snodgrass.
Cole won his mother's seat in the state Senate and later took a job in Washington with the campaign committee for Republican House candidates.
In 1994, Cole was back in Oklahoma, poised for a major turning point in Oklahoma politics. In that year, the middle of former President Bill Clinton's first term, Cole's consulting firm had several Republican clients running for office, including Frank Keating for governor and Frank Lucas, Tom Coburn, Steve Largent and J.C. Watts for Congress.
A Republican revolution nationwide gave the GOP control of the U.S. House that year, and Lucas, Coburn, Largent and Watts were part of it, as Oklahoma's congressional delegation became dominated by Republicans for the first time.
Keating also won, and Cole became his chief political adviser as secretary of state.
In 2000, Cole was the chief of staff for the Republican National Committee when George W. Bush won the presidency. He won his U.S. House seat in 2002, succeeding Watts, and immediately became an informal political adviser to his colleagues.
After Republicans lost control of the House in 2006, Cole became chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, but his term ended with the loss of 20 more seats and political strain between him and Boehner, who was then the House Republican leader. Cole dropped his bid for a second term as chairman when Boehner backed Cole's opponent.
“Tom's a strategist,” Lucas said last week. “He's kind of a chess player in moving his pieces around to ultimately win the game.”
While not endorsing Cole's strategy, Lucas said he understood it.
“Tom was trying to make everyone consider all the options.” Lucas said the reaction by other Republicans could best be described as “reflexive.”
Despite the tension between Boehner and Cole four years ago, Cole has been an outspoken supporter of the speaker. He said there is no difference in “political theology” between him and the rest of Republicans, and he criticized the Obama administration for not presenting a detailed plan to cut spending and reform entitlement programs.
Cole said he was asked his opinion on the tax issue and gave it. If he were in a huddle and the quarterback asked his opinion on a play, he'd give it, Cole said, but then to go to the line determined to run whatever play was called. He said he would likely back whatever plan Boehner ultimately brings.
“To me, the politics of this dictate the decision,'' he said. If the president wants to be responsible for tax rates going up on the wealthiest taxpayers, Cole said, “we ought to protect the rest of the American people.”
At a glance
Rep. Tom Cole
Republican, first elected to the U.S. House in 2002
• Age: 63
• Home: Moore
• Committees: Appropriations, Budget
• Previous positions: Oklahoma state senator, Oklahoma secretary of state, political consultant, chief of staff for Republican National Committee, chairman of Oklahoma Republican Party
• Education: B.A. from Grinnell College; M.A. from Yale University; Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.