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.
FOR THE RECORD:
Utah: A May 11 Op-Ed column about Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) stated that the last time Utah elected a Democratic senator was in 1958. That senator was Frank Moss, who was reelected in 1964 and 1970. —
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 Wiliams 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. Either way, 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 partyers."
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.
But 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).
Another way of looking at this is that the GOP rank and file is actually serious about what it says.
Over the last year, there's been a lot of 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.
Veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook says there is an "anti-everything" mood overtaking the country, which will manifest itself primarily as an anti-Democratic force and is best personified by the tea parties.
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.
Independents, too, seem fed up, which is why they delivered stunning victories to Republicans in off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The one 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 the sudden — and largely unpopular — leftward shift of Washington since 2008. In Washington, 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 is "this time we mean it."