The man who said ‘nay’ to his own party

January 3, 2013 

Michael Bennet was supposed to be going off a cliff in Vail.

But instead of his usual New Year’s trip to a ski lodge with his wife and three daughters, the junior senator from Colorado found himself in a strange, unfamiliar place in the middle of the night: breaking with the president and his party to become one of only three Democratic senators and eight senators total to vote against President Barack Obama’s fiscal deal.

“I was a little surprised that the margin of the vote was so big,” said a weary Bennet, who seemed a bit taken aback to be such an outlier. He was munching on a late-afternoon cheese steak sandwich at George’s, King of Falafel and Cheese Steaks. (The senator loves falafel, which his girls call “feel awful.”)

Long before Bennet came to work in the “land of flickering lights,” as he mockingly calls the dysfunctional nation’s capital where he grew up, Frank Capra dreamed him up. In a Congress that has become opera bouffe, Bennet is the freckled blond choir boy singing a cappella. The 48-year-old senator looks like the Yale law student he once was, wearing a Jos. A. Bank plaid shirt, gray sweater and khakis. “These are the only clothes I have in Washington that’s not a suit,” he grins.

As Katherine Boo wrote in The New Yorker, back when Bennet was the crusading Denver schools superintendent, his open face and amiable manner “only partly masked the intensity and severity of his judgments.” He was, Boo wrote, “an overachiever. He liked to announce improbable goals, then defy expectations of failure.”

Voting to let the country fall off the cliff was an audacious, even precocious, move by the Democratic golden boy and presidential pet – one that, oddly, put him on the side of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul rather than Obama and Joe Biden. He also had to go against Majority Leader Harry Reid, who anointed the freshman to be the new leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Bennet, the future of his party, comes from the fertile territory of the Mountain West. Asked if his vote was a way to stake out some centrist and independent territory for a future White House run, he demurred, “No, no, no.” Appointed in 2009 and little known in his state, he managed to survive the conservative wave that swept out so many Democrats in 2010 and his coalition of Hispanics and women became the model for the Obama campaign in Colorado in 2012. Democrats are counting on Bennet to recruit a new generation of candidates who will broaden the appeal and geographic reach of the party.

In the frantic New Year’s Day deal-making, he voted “nay” at about 2 a.m., and the House passed the bill at around 11 p.m. He said he did so because the deal did not have meaningful deficit reduction, explaining: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.”

He said he thinks the president wants serious deficit cuts but is dealing with people “so intransigent I’m not sure they could be brought to an agreement that’s meaningful in the absence of going over the cliff. But it’s a terrible thing to say. People at home are so bone-tired of these outcomes.”

He said his focus now is the same as when he was the Denver superintendent trying to get more poor kids to stay in school.

“The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.”

He thinks the trouble is not so much a clash of Democratic and Republican orthodoxies as it is a clash of past and future.

I noted that his wife said that his special skill is knowing the difference between worthy challenges and impossible ones. He laughed, then mused: “This may be one of the impossible ones. But we have to do it. I know this country is not going to allow itself to go bankrupt. It’s challenging, though, because in this town there are all kinds of people whose job it is to obfuscate the facts.”

Then the exhausted senator left to see “Skyfall.” The one with James Bond, not John Boehner.

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, may be reached at 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY, 10018.

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