Every couple of months, Mr. Bennett would stop by with a couple of aides and spend an hour so with me and other senior editors. Most of it was on the record, but occasionally he would go off the record and give us some useful scuttlebutt helpful for pursuing leads, forming judgments, and shaping coverage.
There was never any question of Bennett’s conservative Republican credentials.
In his three terms – almost two decades – in the Senate he voted with the Republicans 88 percent of the time. He had achieved eminence holding positions on key committees like Banking and Appropriations.
Although Utah had little heft in Washington, Bennett brought back his fair share of pork. His recent elevation as counsel to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell gave him a position of influence that any successor would take years to achieve.
Hardly a closet liberal, Bennett nevertheless reached across the Senate aisle in bipartisan style from time to time to partner with Democrats on measures both sides believed to be in the public interest.
With Bennett’s gold-plated reputation as a conservative, one might have considered him a shoo-in this year for reelection to a fourth six-year Senate term representing Utah, one of the most conservative states in the nation.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the election. Utah has a party convention prior to a primary, and public rage against all things Washingtonian knocked Bennett out of contention at the convention in favor of other, local candidates.
Not even the in-person arrival and endorsement of Bennett by Mitt Romney, the savior of Salt Lake City’s 2002 winter Olympics and a past and likely future presidential candidate, could stem the glee with which Bennett’s critics gave him the heave-ho.
Bennett initially considered a write-in candidacy, but he has now withdrawn from political contention.
His perfidy, as his detractors see it, is that he supported the handout of TARP funds to bankers either clueless or Machiavellian with other people’s money. But Bennett still thinks he did the right thing, saving the country from even greater harm.
He also proposed health-care legislation with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that, among other reforms, would have required every American to purchase insurance.
Although he voted against President Obama’s plan, critics still saw Bennett as a Washington insider who stood for big government and mindless spending. Bennett’s problem, he says, is that the nation’s mood is “toxic.”
Well, that it is, and though there is a lot of talk that Democrats are headed for a political thrashing in the upcoming elections, Bennett’s downfall is surely an indication that the anger of the voters is not one-dimensional but is directed at all incumbents, Democrat or Republican.
The voters think Washington, despite Barack Obama’s promise of change, remains a messy huddle of politicians, unable to cooperate and produce commonsensical solutions to the nation’s various ills.
This is a harsh judgment. Bob Bennett has worried for years about health care, and the stark future confronting Social Security and Medicare. But both Republican and Democratic politicians have lacked the courage to take the tough measures necessary to solve such challenges.
In a little pamphlet on civility, written on the eve of elections in 2004, Washington veteran David Abshire questioned: “Which is the true America? The America of division or the America of unity? The America of endless public and partisan warfare or the America of cooperation, civility, and common purpose.”
It is a question well worth revisiting.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.