Frankly, I did not care much one way or the other about Sen. Robert Bennett’s loss at last weekend’s Utah GOP convention. However, the story provided valuable insight into the world of “polite-company conservatives” (PCCs). For example, take the reaction of NYT columnist David Brooks:

This is a damn outrage, to be honest. This is a guy who was a good Senator and he was a good Senator and a good conservative, but a good conservative who was trying to get things done. The Wyden-Bennett bill, which he co-sponsored — if you took the health care economists in the country, they would probably be for that bill, ideally. It was a substantive, serious bill, a bipartisan bill, with strong conservative and some liberal support. So he did something sort of brave by working with Democrats which more Senators should do and now they’ve been sent a message to him don’t do that.

Ross Douthat (a/k/a David Brooks: TNG) had already written:

Bob Bennett, the three-term Republican senator from Utah, may lose his primary because of his willingness to co-sponsor a centrist (in a good way!) health care reform bill with the Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden. If Bennett goes down to defeat, it will be fair to say that the Tea Partiers have hurt their party, and cost the country a good senator.

Rick Moran similalry championed the Wyden-Bennett bill as “a flawed, but earnest effort at comprehensive reform”:

Called “The Healthy Americans Act,” the bill incorporated some standard liberal thinking like an individual mandate, but was also innovative in the way costs would be shared and how the program would be administered at the state level. It would also have done away with Medicaid – a plus in any conservative’s book. In short, it was a good old fashioned senate compromise on a thorny issue that, in another less mindlessly partisan time, would have served as a starting point for the two parties to work out their differences.

Unsurprisingly, David Frum had preemptively blamed the loss on greedy competition for donations between the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks (For a PCC, Frum has a flair for imputing bad faith to those with whom he disagrees). But Frum also touted Wyden-Bennett as “the most realistic and workable proposal put forth by anyone to solve the health care problem on free-market principles.”

The notable thing about the complaints of the PCCs is how detached they are from political reality.

Brooks claims Bennett’s bill had strong conservative support. Lefty blogger Ezra Klein called it “fake support”, and was correct. Bennett’s bill went from having nine GOP co-sponsors in 2007 to three in 2009. One of those was the Maverick-lite Lindsey Graham. Another was Mike Crapo of Idaho, who probably signed on to have some fallback position as a member of the Senate Finance Committee. The remaining GOP co-sponsor was Lamar(!) Alexander, the 7th most liberal Senate Republican. Former co-sponsor Judd Gregg signed on to an op-ed supporting the bill; he’s the 8th most liberal Senate Republican.

Outside the Senate, Heritage waved the caution flag on Wyden-Bennett for its “sweeping and heavy-handed federal control over the insurance markets,” its tax inequities and other unpleasant policy surprises. At Cato, Michael F. Cannon called the bill a “wholesale takeover of America’s healthcare sector.” National Review — not exactly the radical fringe of conservatism — slammed the bill both before and after the Bennett loss. Douthat may want to keep arguing the merits of Bennett’s bill, but no one can make the case that it had strong conservative support.

But what about the bipartisanship? The fallback position of the PCCs is that whatever the flaws of Wyden-Bennett, there is an intrinsic value to “serious” bipartisanship (as opposed to opportunistic trimming). Nolstalgia for the good ol’ days, where Giants of the Senate hammered out a consensus on the Important Issues of Our Time is usually invoked (no matter the results).

The flaw is in this position is the Democrats’ almost total lack of interest in bipartisanship, particularly when it came to healthcare reform. Tunku Varadarajan does an adequate rebuttal of the PCC position in general — the partisan gap was too large, the Dems were focused on holding their own party, and so on. But we can be more specific.

Pres. Obama largely ignored the House GOP leadership on healthcare reform, and the PCCs cannot point to House Democrats being open to GOP proposals. Wyden-Bennett backers Lamar Alexander and Judd Gregg complained about the partisan nature of the process in the Senate. Republicans took part in the the vaunted negotiations among the “Gang of Six,” but the only concession to the GOP occurred when the Senate Finance Committee reported a bill without the so-called “public option.” Days later, Sen. Maj. Ldr. Harry Reid inserted the “public option” into the bill that went to the Senate floor, alienating liberal Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. We would be stuck with a “public option” today, but for the opposition of Independent-Democrat Joe Lieberman (and maybe Democrat Ben Nelson). Pres. Obama pretended that the GOP had no ideas until Scott Brown replaced the late Ted Kennedy in the Senate. Then, Obama held a Potemkin bipartisan summit as a prelude to the claim that the Democrats’ partisan bill contained a number of GOP ideas (which supposedly didn’t exist mere weeks earlier).

[In contrast, the Bush43 administration’s major initiatives were often bipartisan. Yet PCCs like Frum, Douthat and Bruce Bartlett all wrote books critical (often harshly so) of the Bush domestic policy shop. A cynic might conclude that PCCs only care about bipartisanship when Democrats are in power. Or that the only constant for PCCs is criticism of Republicans. But I would merely note that actual bipartsanship tends to look different than the bipartisanship PCCs imagine. Anyway, back to healthcare reform…]

Speaker Pelosi ultimately had to twist arms to the breaking point to get enough of her colleagues to back the Senate healthcare bill (with minor changes in reconciliation), because they had no other way to pass any bill. Can the PCCs honestly argue the House would have voted on anything like Wyden-Bennett? Contra the PCCs, Bennett’s effort was not brave or serious. It was a sideshow, irrelevant to the political realities that produced ObamaCare. And that largely moots the policy debate. Arguing the relative degrees of awfulness of Bennett’s bill vs. ObamaCare is rather beside the point when the Democratic leadership spent 2009 pretending Bennett’s bill did not exist.

Finally, there is the more generic question, posed this way by Moran: “How can you claim that a senator who has a lifetime score of 85 from the American Conservative Union to be ‘not conservative enough’ for any state?” To answer that question, I refer to flaming wingnut lefty blogger Nate Silver:

[I]t would arguably be quite rational for Utah Republicans to dispose of Bennett. He’s no liberal, but he ranks as only about the 27th most conservative Republican senator in a state with just about the most conservative electorate. A more conservative Republican, moreover, would be very unlikely to lose the general election — not in Utah, and not in this political environment. Our forecasting model gives a generic Utah Democrat only about a 2 percent chance against a generic Utah Republican, which probably amounts to the contingency of a huge scandal or gaffe. The delegates to the Republican convention — a hand-picked and self-selected group of conservative activists — are surely smart enough to know this, or at least to recognize that Bennett does occasionally depart from the party line.

Although some might have preferred an open primary to the convention process in Utah, by the end of 2009, two of every three Utahns wanted to see Bennett ousted:

Bennett, 75, who has served 17 years in the Senate, faces no personal scandal, but has been attacked mostly by conservatives who say he is not conservative enough. However, the poll shows that similar percentages of conservatives, moderates and liberals all would like to see Bennett dumped next year, so opposition is not just from the far-right GOP wing. (Emphasis added.)

This is apparently what led Frum to conclude that Bennett was “broadly popular within the state.” Or maybe not. One wonders why the broad, bipartisan opposition to Bennett did not impress the PCCs, who purport to value bipartisan consensus. Or maybe not.

In sum, the PCCs — who undoubtedly see themselves as the voices of reason — got everything wrong. Bennett’s bill did not have strong conservative support. The bill was not brave or important. Bipartisanship was rejected from the outset by the Democrats. Bennett was not a popular figure sunk by the right-wing fringe. Bennett’s loss helps expose the gap between the PCC’s pose as serious thinkers and the political realities of the day. That is a pretty good legacy for Sen. Bennett, though I doubt he would see it that way.

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