Michael Bennet's appeal to Colorado Democrats: I feel your pangs of regret.

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Oct. 15 2010 1:27 PM

Anger, Aspen-Style

Michael Bennet's appeal to Colorado Democrats: I feel your pangs of regret.

Michael Bennet. Click image to expand.
Michael Bennet

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo.—Sooner or later, if you are a member of the United States Senate, you will be asked why the government won't pay for Viagra. On Wednesday, at a meet-and-greet in this scenic resort town, it was Michael Bennet's turn.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It didn't start too badly. Bennet, the incumbent Democrat who trails his Republican opponent Ken Buck, had just finished a short speech to a crowd of gray-haired liberals at the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co. An excitable man named Jim Preston got up and informed the senator that he spent two and a half hours making campaign calls and that everyone should do this.

"There's a lot of anger out there," said Preston. "I was very surprised. You have to learn to restrain yourself. There's a lot of support, but there's a lot of hang-ups. People yell at you."

Bennet nodded. Preston kept talking. "You know, I'm 73 years old, I'm divorced, and I still like to have sex once in a while."

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Bennet interjected: "This is an advertisement first for phone-banking, and now for …"

Preston ignored the stop sign. "In order to have sex, I need some help," he said. But under the new health care law, he says, it will be harder for him to get Medicare to reimburse him for Viagra. "In the Congress, somebody figured out that you could get some votes by saying, 'Oh no, we can't have 73-year-old people, you know, on the dole for sex.' And now I have to pay full price!"

Craig Chisesi, an air-water-solar technician in a Hawaiian-patterned shirt and sandals, who had been listening intently, leaned over to me. "Now I know why they hung up on him," he said.

"All right," said Bennet. "On the, uh, on the phone calls …"

That got a laugh. On the stump, Bennet has two modes: concerned and dryly humorous. Here was a chance to test out both of those modes. And his answer sounded like his answer to almost everything: Isn't it a shame that people can't get along? "You know, it is important to hear what folks have to say," he said. "You know, part of the problem that we have right now is that too many of us have stopped listening to each other."

On other subjects, Bennet showed more of an edge. On the Senate: "I wish I could report to you that it's less dysfunctional than it appears to be. It's not. It's more dysfunctional." On the campaign ads: "We have actually run millions of dollars of positive ads. No one remembers them." On America as a superpower: "We really squandered the first decade of this century, economically."

All of the political energy in 2010 is with the angry voter and the angry candidate, who have run out of words to describe how much they hate Washington. Bennet's response has been to tell these voters that they're right—just not right in the way they think they are. They focus too much on the silly parts of Washington (say, Medicare reimbursement policies for Viagra) and not enough on more fundamental issues (say, how dysfunctional the Senate really is).

This is a point Bennet has been making for his entire, brief, career in electoral politics. Appointed in January 2009 by Gov. Bill Ritter, Bennet quickly earned the ire of progressive activists who thought he was soft and indecisive about their priorities, like union card check or the stimulus package. When he became more responsive to them—egged on by a primary challenge from the left—he opened himself to the line of attack Republicans have been using against him for almost two years now. It's neatly packaged in an ad from Americans for Job Security, which displays a map of the Senate and informs the audience that Bennet provided "the deciding vote" for Democrats.

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