Senator Bennet constantly impresses me with his understanding of nuances, with his awareness of social systemic complexity, and with his reluctance to reduce things to simplicities that they are not. In one speech in a small venue, for instance, I was struck by the simple phrase “…create a context in which it is more probable rather than less probable….” Rather than typical political bluster, feeding the audience whatever it wants to hear, he went to the trouble of capturing some of the complexity and nuance of governing. Rather than speak in absolutes, he spoke in deference to reality, and did so in a way which clearly engaged his audience.
Many (including me) were bewildered by Governor Ritter’s appointment of Michael, then DPS Superintendent, with a very thin political resume, to the Senate seat that was vacated when Ken Salazar was appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of the Interior. There is speculation, possibly accurate, that there were negotiations involving the president himself, who wanted to make sure that an effective and politically durable replacement for Salazar was chosen before making the Salazar appointment, and took an active hand in choosing Michael. That would only be a further recommendation of Michael’s talents, if President Obama had had any hand in his selection. But Governor Ritter tells a different story, which struck me as certainly at least somewhat accurate: That he (Gov. Ritter) had asked sitting senators, and others in positions to know, what qualities made for a successful U.S. Senator, and then compared the profile thus constructed with the list of people he was considering, concluding that Michael Bennet most closely matched the description.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for Michael, despite having been appointed. He was wrongly cast by opponents, to the extent that opponents were able to make it stick, as someone in the pocket of big money interests. His votes in the senate, taken as a whole, don’t support that allegation, and most of the evidence used to support it is disingenuous. His rate-swap investment deal as DPS superintendent, for instance, which some use as fodder, was, according to the best informed accounts I’ve read, actually a good financial move, and preserved DPS’s long-term financial health better than any alternative would have.
In the Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff (whom I also like and respect) made a (political) virtue out of necessity, and emphasized his refusal to take PAC money. To many, that was, and is, an admirable position to take. To me, it is based on a classic kind of logical fallacy, called a ”levels of analysis error”. What is desirable on one level is not necessarily facilitated, and can in fact be undermined, by pursuing it on another, pretending that the world is simply the sum of such actions.
Most of us probably agree, for instance, that world peace is a laudable goal, that carefully implemented multilateral disarmament could certainly contribute to that end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings (as Michael does of campaign finance reform). But most of us probably also agree that an American policy of unilateral disarmament would neither serve these laudable ends, nor lead to a happy outcome for the American people.
Similarly, most of us probably agree that the role of money in politics is horrible, that campaign finance reform is a highly desired end, and that we should support candidates who demonstrate an effective commitment to these understandings. But we should also realize that unilateral campaign-finance disarmament in the domestic political competition between two broad visions for our country (conservative and liberal) suffers from the same defects as unilateral military disarmament does in the geopolitical and military strife among nations. It does not serve the desired end, and does not bode well for the camp that attempts it.
I use this example not to fight an old fight, but to illustrate what I consider the necessary combination of integrity and intelligence, a commitment to serve the public good, even when it means not yielding to the demand to make empty and counterproductive political gestures that undermine one’s ability to do so. Michael stayed on message during the primary, and stayed focused on the necessity of balancing political reality with idealistic goals. That’s not easy to do.
I’ve listened to Michael many times, and he never panders to his audience, never says what he thinks they want to hear at the expense of truths he knows they don’t want to hear. Sure, he couches hard truths in the most palatable way possible; that’s part of the skill set his job requires. But he isn’t willing to compromise the truth to win support. That takes integrity. It is abundantly clear to me that Michael isn’t running for office for personal glory; he’s running because he’s a very bright and talented guy who wants to do what he can to improve the world we live in and the quality of our lives.
But what separates Senator Bennet from the many other very intelligent and capable people who would like to be a U.S. Senator (none of whom are in the race against him) is a talent that the very best and most successful elected officials have, usually as a natural trait (though it doesn’t matter whether it is learned or inherent, as long as it is authentic), that many others, even with immense charisma and public speaking skills often lack: His ability to put anyone he is talking with at ease, to make them feel that they are in the company of someone who is just a humble, reasonable, well-intentioned person trying to work together with all others to get the job done. Bill Clinton was famous for that skill. President Obama is well known for having that skill. And Michael Bennet has that skill.
Not all politicians do. And it’s value isn’t just (or primarily) that you win over the electorate that way; it’s value is that you win over other politicians and captains of industry and agency heads and leaders of non-profits and activists and all and sundry others at the nexus of political decision making that way. It’s value is that that is the trait that makes someone effective in the inner-political arena, where decision-making occurs. It’s value is that those who have that quality are the ones who can get the job done.
In our few brief one-on-one interactions, I have always been impressed with Michael’s personal aura of humble, good-natured affability. Some might say, “sure, all politicians play that role,” but most of those who are playing it rather than are it, deeply and sincerely, with more concern for the welfare of others than for their own self-glorification, betray their actual priorities in various small ways. Some of them are wonderful people, with a very real commitment to the public interest, but if their ego is bigger than that commitment, you can usually tell, especially in one-on-one conversations. There are a few, and they are the best and most successful, whose special talent is to make each person they are talking to feel like the sole focus of their attention. Michael has that talent, and it is a talent that makes him the right person for the job.
I supported Michael in the Democratic primary against a very charismatic, very popular, very talented, and very deeply loved leader of the Colorado Democratic Party, the former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, and someone, to his immense credit, who had generated deep and passionate loyalty among those who had worked with him and knew him. I didn’t make that choice because I thought Michael’s opponent was deficient, or would support an agenda that I opposed (I thought neither), but rather because, as impressive as his opponent was, Michael was more so.
As you might imagine, I support Michael with an incalculably greater sense of urgency against his Republican opponent, Ken Buck, a torch-bearer of Tea Party fanaticism, a person who is rapidly making a name for himself as a political chamelion of convenience by trying to back-pedal from the extreme (and clearly sincerely held) positions that won him the primary (in a contest of extremism with Jane Norton, who could not hope to keep up).
For the positive reasons of Michael Bennet’s formidable talents and qualities, and the negative reasons of who he is running against, we need to get out there, talk to our friends and neighbors, and ensure that Michael Bennet continues in his role as our junior U.S. Senator from Colorado.