A So-Called RINO Joins the Tea Party Caucus

Straus supporter and Rob Eissler has joined the Tea Party Caucus. Does that mean a shift in policy?
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There are good surprises—cool Uncle Jim is coming to Christmas—and there are bad surprises—weird Auntie Edna’s making her special version of Jello salad. Then there are those surprises that you can’t quite make out, but may have some serious implications. (Really? Your new sister-in-law doesn’t like How the Grinch Stole Christmas?)

Such was my feeling when I saw state Rep. Rob Eissler’s name among the first legislators to join the Tea Party Caucus. The likable Republican is conservative to be sure, but as the chair of the Public Education Committee, he’s built bipartisan coalitions and vocally supported current Speaker Joe Straus, who’s in the Tea Party’s crosshairs. Eissler’s presence in the Tea Party indicates the divisions between the Tea Party and the establishment GOP may be less intense than previously thought. But who’s compromising with whom?

In case you have been living under a rock (or simply in some leftist, Austin commune,) for Republicans, the Tea Party is the trendiest club in sight. Tea Party support brings thousands of grassroots activists, untold levels of enthusiasm and a certain populist shine that becomes even the most corporate of lawmakers. So it’s not a shock that most Texas legislators are eager to join Tea Party ranks. Amidst the excitement, the Tea Party also has an element looking to do away with most government services, and some of its leaders are pushing for a level of ideological purity. Within the Republican Party, many Tea Party leaders have taken highly visible positions in trying to get rid of the current Republican Speaker of the House, Joe Straus. He’s not viewed as conservative enough.

Eissler was a major figure in helping Straus come to power. As a member of the “Gang of 11,” Eissler and ten other Republicans joined together in an effort to oust the hardline conservative Speaker Tom Craddick. They agreed that they would choose one candidate to support. When they chose Straus, the Democrats lent their support as well, giving Straus the majority he needed.  Eissler has remained a steadfast Straus supporter—and been branded a dreaded RINO (Republican In Name Only) as a result. When state Rep. Leo Berman sent a public letter to Straus, he listed Eissler among the “remaining 6 RINOs.” Against a backdrop of very cheerful holiday music, a web ad criticized Joe Straus and his supporters, declaring that the incredible Republican gains in the November elections dictated that “Establishment RINOs must go!” A set of dominoes with the faces of Republican Straus supporters begin to topple—and prominent among the faces is Rob Eissler’s. “Fall of the RINOs, Republican Primaries 2012″ proclaims the caption.

While Eissler is quick to defend Straus, he also doesn’t hold the Tea Party responsible for the intensely negative tone of the anti-Straus movement. “I think they’ve been misled by people who have other motives,” Eissler told the Observer. “Because there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation” in the race. (Eissler also said he doesn’t look at the negative advertising.)

“When the Tea Party Caucus came up,” he said, “I thought,  ‘Well I’m in favor of restrained spending.” He also pointed out his agreement with the Tea Party when it comes to the health-care reform bill.

More significantly, however, Eissler’s new place in the Tea Party Caucus may also signal his approach to education spending—or cuts. With an unprecedented budget shortfall of $27 billion, education is sure to be on the chopping block. The question will be: How much gets cut? Most Tea Partiers have been open to significant education cuts, and the hardline fiscal conservative group Empower Texans has been beating the drum with statistics about waste and inefficiency in schools. Is Eissler also open to such cuts?

It sure seems that way. “What I’ve discovered is you can do [cut education funding] without hurting kids,” Eissler said. The chair of the Public Education committee went on to say that “we do a lot of redundant things in education, we have multiple programs that try to do the same thing.” Taking a page from the Tea Party playbook, Eissler argued inefficiencies were a big problem, and there are potential cuts to education that kids wouldn’t feel. In 2006, he said, there were 7.9 students per staff member. Now there are 7.6. To revert back to the 2006 numbers, Eissler said, would save a billion and a half dollars per year.

But Texas education already faces major disparities in funding—some districts have $1,000 less per student than others. For Eissler, this is proof that many schools could do more with less, though he said lawmakers should not “cut across the board.” Eissler also believes, with a distinctly Reagan logic, that fewer taxes will ultimately benefit schools. When “people have more money to spend, they’re going to spend it,” he said. “Which is going to boost the economy, which is going to create more jobs, which is going to create more taxpayers.”

So you’re not losing sleep at night about cuts to education and their potential costs? I asked. “Right,” he told me.

While Eissler seems to be taking a Tea-Party-esque view of education spending, he’s adamant on certain sentiments in the Republican party that he doesn’t like. He still remains vehemently committed to an inclusive, bipartisan process. He wants to make sure the Democrats, despite having less than a third of the House seats, have a voice and even some committee chairmanships. “The Tea Party was formed to fight Washington-style politics,” he said. “One of the reasons that Congress was flipped—the Republicans weren’t getting any traction, they weren’t getting an opportunity to participate in the government. And now I get calls to make Texas like Washington. That the party in power chooses the Speaker. Chairmanships that are only in the ruling party. I thought we didn’t like the way Washington did their business. I know I don’t.”