Bennett a warning to all incumbents 

‘It’s an anti-incumbent year.” This phrase, common in 2010, seems to have a different meaning for each person who uses it.

On its face, it’s a simple fact.

In the liberal media, it’s offered as a misleading, nonpartisan excuse for clear voter antipathy over President Barack Obama’s very specific agenda of bailouts, stimulus packages and government micromanagement.

For tea party activists, “anti-incumbent year” is a rallying cry that suggests a much higher level of bipartisanship than truly exists in their anti-incumbent movement.

In the case of Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett’s demise, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Bennett’s poor showing in his state’s party convention means that he will not even appear on the party’s primary ballot. (He has not ruled out a write-in campaign this fall.)

As much as liberals in the media — and many triumphalist conservatives — would like to frame Bennett’s ouster as a “moderate vs. conservative” battle, the characterization is inaccurate. Bennett is no moderate. On the scale of the American Conservative Union, he rates a lifetime 84 percent. On the shorthand test of modern conservatism — “Where do you stand on guns, babies and taxes?” — he rates an A-plus.

Bennett’s problem was a perception — in some ways fair and in others misleading — that he had become a member of the Washington Club. That perception is proving deadly in 2010, even for legislators normally considered safe — even for some conservatives.

Bennett’s situation was unique. His ouster was probably only possible because of the Utah GOP’s odd candidate-selection process. His detractors spread an alleged quotation from him all over cable television and the Internet, in which Bennett supposedly called the U.S. Constitution “an outmoded document from an agrarian society.”

My efforts to trace the origin of this quote proved vain. It’s unverifiable, having allegedly come in a closed-door meeting.

But Bennett did some things that strengthened the perception. He stayed in the Senate for 17 years by breaking his original pledge to limit his own terms.

He became a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who both engaged in and actively defended the practice of earmarking as a constitutional prerogative of Congress. His vote against a temporary spending freeze last year, which had been proposed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, was taken by some as a sign he enjoys playing with other people’s money a bit too much.

Bennett’s opponents used his vote for the TARP bailout against him, to great effect. As Bennett pointed out on his campaign website, he had “vigorously opposed the stimulus, the auto bailouts, and all of President Obama’s spending proposals,” but this defense was not enough to satisfy the 3,500 convention delegates whose antipathy sealed his fate Saturday.

As unfair as Bennett’s defeat might seem, just imagine: If Utah Republican activists are willing to dump a conservative like Bennett because of these perceptions, just imagine what 2010 holds for the less innocent when they are judged by an even less studied electorate?

It’s no accident that as I write this, such “safe” incumbents as House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., are suddenly retiring. Or that such long-term staples of Congress as Reps. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., and Chet Edwards, D-Texas, are trailing challengers by double-digit margins in new polls.

The Washington Club is breaking up.

Columnist David Freddoso is The Washington Examiner’s online opinion editor.

About The Author

David Freddoso

David Freddoso came to the Washington Examiner in June 2009, after serving for nearly two years as a Capitol Hill-based staff reporter for National Review Online. Before writing his New York Times bestselling book, The Case Against Barack Obama, he spent three years assisting Robert Novak, the legendary Washington... more
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