This retiring Congressman's crime? Compromise
(CBS News) Partisan gridlock has been one of the talking points of this political campaign . . . enough to spur a drastic decision by the Congressman our Tracy Smith has been talking with:
"Americans are screaming for us to take off our red jersies on this side, and blue jersies on that side, and put on the red, white and blue of the United States of America," said Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio.
He's one of the rarest birds in Congress: a moderate.
The Republican Congressman has served nearly nine terms, and was poised to win a tenth. But instead, he's walking away from a place that, in his view, is stuck in the mud.
"Things that were no-brainers when I got here 18 years ago, such as transportation bills, student loan bills, we now have to fight about everything. And if it becomes a Republican bill, then the Democrats hate it, and vice versa," he told Smith. "There's no common ground."
LaTourette says he's been a party man all of his life: President George W. Bush, in a term of endearment, called him "Big Ugly." But he's been called a lot worse - by his fellow Republicans.
Even "traitor": "Oh sure, oh yeah, on a variety of things."
His crime, as he sees it, was compromise, in a place where people who reach across the aisle sometimes get their hands slapped hard.
"Have you been told, 'You're out of line, you need to toe the line'?" asked Smith.
"Oh, all the time," he replied. "I have more whip marks from my own party than most people here. Now you're not only getting shot at by the Democrats but you're getting shot at by your own team. I mean, you're taking friendly fire on this whole notion that you're not a good enough Republican, you're not a good enough Democrat. And that really wears you down."
A former county prosecutor from Cleveland, LaTourette won his seat in the great GOP tidal wave of 1994. But he wasn't afraid to break ranks with fellow Republicans, like a vote against de-funding National Public Radio . . . and a vote for a measure that would raise taxes.
LaTourette denies he was like Jimmy Stewart's character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a wide-eyed innocent who was undone by a political machine.
"Were you wide-eyed coming in thinking, 'I can make a difference'?" asked Smith.
"No, I couldn't find the bathroom here!"
But he did have a "Mr. Smith" moment of his own this year, when he co-sponsored a tough-love budget plan with a Democratic colleague that would slash spending and raise taxes.
"If not now, when? If not this, what?"
It looked like a winner . . . at first.
"We had 100 Members show up at a press conference endorsing the plan," he said. "We had 100 Members sign a letter saying that this was the way to go, that we needed to get the big deal."
"What happened to them?"
"What happened is forces on the left and the right began flooding their offices with emails and phone calls and faxes," LaTourette said. "And that makes people nervous here. And so that number shrank and shrank and shrank."
In the end, only 38 voted with him . . . and in LaTourette's view, his political goose was cooked.
"Are you somehow tainted because you offered this compromise and it didn't work out?" asked Smith.
"I think my brand is damaged in terms of being effective enough to do the things that needed to be done here and get 218 votes on something," he replied. "I don't think I have that ability."
"But that does sound like you went to the playground and people didn't play with you and you said, 'Fine,' and you threw down your toys and then you went home," said Smith.
"Yeah, it sounds like that - and people can say, 'Well, you're a big fat quitter.' But every day you're in this job you have to balance the personal costs against what you can do."
And for the married father of six, just being in Washington for 18 years took a toll.
"I always love it when I turn on the TV and they say, 'Congress has gone home for a three-month vacation.' Well, that's a bunch of crap," LaTourette said. "I mean, we work from the time the sun comes up 'til the time the sun goes down. And it doesn't matter when its' here in Washington or back home. And so that's time away from soccer games, recitals, ballet, everything.
"The other thing that's different from when I got here, the Democrats - if you're a Republican - have always been our opponents . . . never our enemy, but our opponents."
So the Gentleman from Ohio says Congress can bicker on without him.
"It's a pox on both houses, both parties," he said. "The need to say, 'You know what? This is dysfunctional.' I mean, if this was a family, we'd be in a psychiatric hospital, because we are just not getting along in the way that we have to."
"So what are you going to do now?" Smith asked.
"I don't know yet. But I'm only 58, I gotta get a job and, you know, so if CBS is hiring, call me!"
© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.