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Progressive Primary Pressure Changing Senate Votes on Health Care

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On Monday, I noted that the upsides of a contested Democratic primary here in Colorado are huge, because it will force whomever the nominee is to be far more concrete and progressive in their positions on issues. And within two days, that truism has already been proven correct. It's a good lesson not just here in Colorado, but everywhere: primaries are good because they make legislators more accountable to the constituents they are supposed to represent.

Notice on Saturday that appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) was still all wishy-washy on the public option, saying he technically supports it but probably wouldn't fight for it - and probably wouldn't vote against a bill without a public option:

Bennet said that he favored a so-called public option, which would provide an alternative insurance source for those who can't get private insurance. "But as I stand here today, I think it's very unlikely that the public option part of this will pass."

This followed a report in the Durango Herald a few weeks ago about Bennet explicitly refusing to take a concrete position on the public option - and urging other senators not to take a concrete position:

Bennet, speaking after the meeting, said reform shouldn't hinge on the public option, though he has said he supports it. "I don't think we should be drawing lines in the sand," he said.

Now, just a few days after headlines about a potential Senate primary challenge from former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D), Bennet is aggressively insisting he will fight for the public option. The tone and the positioning represent a huge change.

The Denver Post editorial board - which leans conservative, by the way - has it exactly right:

[Bennet's] silence on a few contentious issues, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, prompted Republicans to deride him as "Silent Senator Bennet." But we don't think Sen. Michael Bennet's silence was for lack of an opinion; rather, he was hoping to stave off a primary challenger from his left...

Bennet may not like it, but we say the more the merrier. Coloradans deserve a choice, not a coronation...While Bennet is the U.S. senator from Colorado, only one person -- Ritter -- has voted. Colorado will be fortunate to have wide-open races on both sides of the aisle.

Whether or not Romanoff ends up running a progressive campaign or not, it's nonetheless true that primaries are good for democracy precisely because they force politicians to take positions and answer to voters.

To those who say that an appointed senator who has never run for or held public office before automatically deserves an uncontested primary and coronation, I say that's a lot of bullshit. Additionally, with Bennet voting against cramdown, taking no position on EFCA and flip-flopping around the public option, its clear that ColoradoPols has it exactly right:

There was a time, perhaps, when Democrats would be making the smart political move by trying to disguise their every opinion in order to appear more moderate. But that was also a time when Republicans controlled everything. If Bennet ends up losing the Democratic nomination to Romanoff, he'll have nobody to blame but himself (and whoever advised him to be so overly cautious on policy issues).

Put another way, if Bennet really wanted to avoid a primary, he would have bent over backwards to be accountable to voters - not bent over backwards to hide his positions and coddle big money. Those who argue that longtime public servants like Romanoff or other Colorado Democratic candidates should have looked at Bennet's behavior and simply backed off show themselves to be far more loyal to institutional/establishment sensibilities than legislative success, progressive results, electoral choice and democracy itself.