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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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."

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.

Bennet, who speaks slowly and languidly, and who dresses for the trail as if he's about to head out camping, is not exactly making a case for what Democrats have actually accomplished. His TV ads ignore the record of the 111th Congress for decidedly piecemeal reforms, like capping congressional pay raises and cracking down on fancy trips. Bennet, after dutifully helping carry the Democratic agenda, is running on a dream of what the Democrats could have done.

The Republicans here are dreaming, too. Bennet's opponent, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, has led in polling ever since both men won their parties' nominations. In Buck's telling, the Democrats haven't been hampered at all. They've been power-mad, passing bills like the Affordable Care Act that bureaucrats are going to make worse. "What we thought was only a 2,400-page health care bill is actually thousands of pages longer," he said. "The good news is that it's getting less popular as time goes on."

Lumped in with the rest of the Tea Party movement, compared to deeply flawed candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Buck is extraordinarily smooth, with the sort of state-fair humor that plays well with Republican audiences. He spent Wednesday on a "grassroots tour" of state GOP offices, and at his first stop in ultra-Republican Highlands Ranch, he used 30 seconds of a five-minute speech to lead a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to a volunteer's daughter. While he spoke, he wore a microphone for a Christian Broadcasting Network story; after he spoke, a body man watched and warded off eavesdroppers, and Buck took one-on-one questions.

He has something in common with Bennet: An eagerness to answer voter anger with a project or idea that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what's making them angry. What could Republicans do immediately, I asked Buck, if they take power and want to start creating jobs?

"I think we've got to get the discussion going on a balanced budget amendment," he said.

It's not just that the job-creating benefits of that idea are unclear. It's not clear that voters, as much as they rage against the debt, really want deep budget cuts. As Buck shook hands and kept a polite distance from the press, former Douglas County Sheriff Mike Acree explained to me why he'll be voting against ballot initiatives that other conservatives support. Key among them: Measure 61, which would prevent the state from borrowing or bonding.

"If they pass that," said Acree, "we're not going to be able to pay for police and firefighters. If those other measures pass, I think it would hurt local businesses."

I asked Acree whether he thinks Colorado's ready for Buck and the GOP ticket, who promise tax cuts and balanced budgeting, and who opposed deficit spending, via the stimulus, to bail out the state. He does. He's confident that they'll cut "some of the social spending," not funding for services.

That's what's swinging the Colorado voters who boosted Democrats for the last six years: total disappointment in what that party achieved and the hope that Republicans will cut waste without touching anything important. So far in this campaign, Republicans—Buck especially—have lived up to those hopes by backing off some more daring conservative ideas like replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. After appearing to support a national sales tax, Buck said he only found it "interesting," a stance he repeated to me. That hasn't stopped Democrats, given a respite from defending or explaining their failures while in power, from turning it right back on him.

"He says I take him out of context," shrugged Bennet. "I don't know what that means unless 'context' means, 'What he said in the Republican primary.' "

If the election is between Bennet's vision of what the Democrats should have done and Buck's promises of what the GOP will and won't do, Bennet has a chance. Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton are campaigning for him. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is spending money here. Democrats claim that Bennet's up in their internal polls.

But it's Buck who has the easier carry, and the more direct path to the voter's spleen. All he has to do is promise voters that he'll improve on the Democrats. That's pretty much what Bennet is saying. But how, exactly, does a Democrat say that?

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