Politics & Policy

The Lesson of Robert Bennett

If the tea partiers were merely "Astroturf" activists, they wouldn't have taken down Bennett.

Sen. Robert Bennett, an honorable and sincere politician, was brought down by the rank and file of the Utah Republican party over the weekend. Bennett, visibly shaken by his loss, seemed as stunned as anybody that he didn’t pass muster with his own party.

He had good reason to be shocked. Bennett is reliably conservative with considerable seniority. He’s also one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s right-hand men. In every way, he represented the establishment within the GOP. And, ultimately, that’s why he lost.

His gravest sins, according to critics, were his longtime support for a health-insurance mandate and his vote for the TARP bailout of the banks.

Inside the Beltway, the shock is even more profound. Most of the news stories describe Bennett as being “ousted” or “kicked out” of the GOP, as if he didn’t lose the contest fair and square. The pundits’ descriptions are even more stark. “A guy like Bob Bennett, who is a right-wing conservative, is being driven out because he’s not sufficiently conservative?” asked an incredulous Juan Williams on Fox News. “If I lived in Utah, I’m going to give up Bob Bennett and his seniority and connections?”

On Meet the Press, New York Times columnist David Brooks fumed, “This is a damn outrage.” The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne Jr. lamented, “It’s almost a nonviolent coup.” Presumably he meant it was almost a coup, not almost nonviolent. Regardless, it’s a curious way to describe a perfectly peaceful democratic process.

The conventional Beltway interpretation is that Bennett fell victim to the growing right-wing “extremism” of the Republican party, fueled by those Huns, the “tea partiers.”

This is not an altogether crazy interpretation, but it is an insufficient one. It assumes that those who voted him out at the state GOP convention were irrational ideologues who cannot grasp their own interests.

Another way of looking at this is that the GOP rank and file are actually serious about what they say and don’t use the same scorecard as Beltway denizens.

The delegates understood, better than most, that the other Republican contenders will almost surely win in November. (Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1958.) So the GOP wasn’t risking losing its Senate seat, only Bennett’s “seniority and connections.” That’s no small thing, but it is hardly calamitous either (particularly given the clout of Orrin Hatch, Utah’s senior senator).

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of Beltway talk about how the “tea parties” are really “Astroturf” activists in the employ of the GOP. If that were the case, they certainly wouldn’t have taken down Bennett.

The whole country is in an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent mood. That’s better news for the party out of power, the Republicans, but it’s not necessarily good news for incumbents.

Heck, what better way to prove your sincerity than to opt for some new blood, less tainted by seniority and connections?

We’re seeing the same trend in Pennsylvania, where Arlen Specter is running as a Democrat because the Republican party had enough of Specter’s soulless opportunism and politics-as-usual tactics. The funny thing is that Pennsylvania Democrats seem fairly fed up with that sort of thing, too, which is why Specter’s challenger, Joe Sestak, looks poised to defeat the White House’s preferred candidate. Incumbents in West Virginia and Arkansas are having similar problems.

Independents, too, seem fed up, which is why they delivered stunning victories to Republicans in recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. And it’s why New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $92.60 for every vote, only to barely win reelection.

The place where the winds of change seem to be blowing the weakest — for now — is the state where they are needed most. In nearly bankrupt California, Barbara Boxer is opposed in the primary by the quixotic blogger Mickey Kaus, who has been frozen out by the Democratic party.

It’s certainly plausible that the GOP is tacking too far to the right, but that rightward shift is a natural and healthy response to Washington’s abrupt — and largely unpopular — leftward shift since 2008. In D.C., the coin of the realm is “seniority and connections,” and it is that currency that bought us the calamitous state of the country. Ironically, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were elected promising to “change the way Washington works.” For the powers that be, the more frightening and tangible lesson from Utah might well be: “This time we mean it.”

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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