The last time I spoke to Tom Rice, then chairman of the Horry County Council, was early afternoon on election day at Magnolia’s restaurant in Myrtle Beach.
He was having a relaxed meal with his family, quietly optimistic about the results of the race to determine the first representative of the 7th Congressional District.
Before he left, he shook hands with every patron and just about every staff member, reminding them to vote as he traded a few good-natured stories and laughs.
The scene had the making of the last supper, but he wasn’t headed to the cross.
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Still, he knew his life could be about to change forever.
Rice has now moved from making county-level decisions to ones that will ripple throughout the globe. He can no longer sit on the sidelines when debates about the economy, debt and war come up. He actually has to do something and will be held accountable for his record.
But that day in Magnolia’s, those responsibilities and the spotlight had not yet been cast upon him.
They have now.
I’m wondering if the next time I get to shake his hand and speak to him he will sound as he did that day, still fairly laid-back.
I imagine he won’t. That’s just the nature of the position he sought to fill, particularly in a hyper-partisan Washington in which some congressmen and congresswomen turn down invitations to parties at the White House and state dinners – the kinds of events most Americans would pay big money for – for fear that their constituents might get wind of them palling around with the opposition.
Rice is an intelligent man who has gone to Washington to make this country better, as many have before him.
But no matter who you are, no matter how genuine your intentions, you have to play games when you become a part of the beast that is national politics because you have to satisfy your base, worry about a primary challenge – in this case from Rice’s right – and deal with party leaders who are good at arm-twisting.
And you have to be willing to sometimes unleash verbal brush-backs, even if you’d rather just solve problems.
That’s probably why, when I reached Rice’s spokeswoman after President Barack Obama’s press conference in which he discussed the debt ceiling and guns, among other things, she was quick to point out that when Obama was a senator, he said having to raise the debt ceiling was a sign of a lack of leadership.
“Rep. Rice has never threatened a default on our debt,” Caroline Vanvick said. “The only person in Washington that has threatened a default is President Obama. The federal government takes in nearly $2.5 trillion every year, which is more than enough to cover the government’s $220 billion in interest payments in [fiscal year] 2013. Rep. Rice would encourage the President to lead by example by putting forward a credible plan to get our spending under control and take his talk of default on our debt off the table.”
She also reiterated the now-boiler plate line: “We have a spending problem, and not a revenue problem.”
She did not answer when I asked which specific cuts to Medicare and Medicaid Rice wanted to see, given that the rise in health care costs is the No. 1 threat to our long-term fiscal health.
And she didn’t go into detail about why Rice ultimately voted against the bulk of relief funding for Superstorm Sandy, a vote that could come back to haunt this area if we are hit by a major storm.
It is easier to argue in the abstract and match the president’s rhetorical flourish with a rhetorical flourish than to tell the good people of the Grand Strand and Pee Dee that cuts to the programs they dearly love must occur to solve the problems we face.
That’s the dilemma Rice faces. He represents a constituency that demands a smaller government, lower taxes and real deficit reduction, but also demands programs that make that all but impossible go untouched.
I’m sure he’s happy to be in Washington -- but probably not as relaxed as he was that day at Magnolia’s.