Sen. Bob Bennett's (R-Utah) re-election defeat last week was hailed by the political world as an example of the ideological rigidity the modern Republican Party now demands from candidates. For the man who collaborated with the Utah Republican on several major pieces of legislation, however, it was the cause of serious concern about the state of American politics.
In an interview with the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) lamented the fact that his partner in health care reform may have been rejected by conservative voters for the mere fact of that partnership. Wyden wouldn't directly tie Bennett's defeat to the Healthy Americans Act that they co-authored in 2008 though he did suspect it played a role. (That bill was far more sweeping than the version of health care reform that eventually passed, but it included the GOP's dreaded individual mandate).
Bennett's defeat, Wyden said, was "a loss for the country." His guilt was for "the crime of bipartisanship."
"To fix the United State Senate, get this big coalition to stretch across the philosophical spectrum, you're going to have to have people like Bob Bennett in the United States Senate," the Oregon Democrat said. "It's fundamental to have progressives who are principled and conservatives who are principled in order to show the country that if you build a broad coalition without that kind of leadership on both sides -- the republican and democratic sides -- the country is going to suffer... It's an enormous loss."
The reflections of Wyden are some of the first he's has offered since his legislative collaborator failed to advance through Utah primary's caucus process. The two have talked since the election joking about the utter baselessness of the charge that the Utah Republican has progressive tendencies.
"I said to him 'I don't think Bob Bennett has a liberal bone in his body,'" Wyden recalled. "He is a principled conservative and a wonderfully decent, intellectually consistent man. He was willing to say 'If I can get the choice in the competition and empowering individuals that is so important for my principles, I can reach out to this Democratic fella who subscribed to the ideals of his party of the past 75 years-- the dreams of Harry Truman-- the dream of decent, good-quality coverage."
Wyden left open the possibility that Bennett's replacement could follow in his footsteps -- a principled conservative who found efficacy in policy collaboration. But the Senator was wary that the Utah election would simply encourage further rigidity.
"If that's the lesson, it means that elected officials are going to come to Washington and basically say that they're going to disagree with everybody that doesn't subscribe to their principles and just say 'no,'" he said. "It will be, in my view, drastically harder to bring the country together behind bring solutions."
Soft-spoken and wonkish, Wyden typically avoids discussions about process. So for him to address the Utah election provides a hint to the seriousness with which he regards Bennett's defeat. The concern, in the end, is for the institution of Congress as a whole and the capacity of lawmakers to produce legislation -- not, necessarily, a single lawmaker within that institution.
Earlier in the week, Wyden spoke at the Brookings Institution in a discussion entitled "The State of the U.S. Senate" -- during which he posited that rule changes could be needed to reform Congress (though those changes likely won't come until January 2011). The major problem, however, was not with the institution's rules but its personalities. If a lawmaker were solely interested in "really being obnoxious," Wyden said, he or she was on their way to "a trifecta of news coverage where you'll get on cable television, inflammatory radio, and dominate the blog-o-sphere."
It might make for short-term fame. But it was hardly a prescription for effective governance. And over the long-term it could prove to be poor electoral politics.
"It really goes to the expectations voters have, Wyden said. "Do voters really expect that after they elect somebody that all they're going to do in Washington, D.C., is come and try to fight with the other side? I don't think so. I don't see very many people get up at home and say, you know, if you send me to Washington, I guarantee you I'll get nothing done. What I will do is spend all my time fighting with the other side."