How Bad Was the Fiscal Cliff Deal? Michael Bennet May Have Teed One Up for the Teetering GOP

Conservatives have plenty of reason to mope in the fiscal gloom these days, maybe even enough to indulge in a bit of dark humor. That brings us to the Colorado political junkie joke of the week, the first of 2013: “How bad was the fiscal cliff deal Congress approved?”

“I don’t know. How bad was it?”

“The fiscal cliff deal was so bad that Michael Bennet couldn’t even vote for it.”

The serious question, though, that follows Congress’ pathetic kicking-the-can-down-the-road exercise — which strangely divided Colorado’s Democratic tag-team duo in the U.S. Senate — is whether Colorado Senator Michael Bennet‘s dissent may have set the stage for Republicans to start taking a necessary hard line on the next tough issue around the bend. And to win back some respect from freedom fighters on the Right.

I certainly wasn’t the only one shocked to read on New Year’s Day that Senator Bennet was one of the 8 no votes in the upper house on the fiscal cliff resolution and his stated reason for doing so. Nor am I smart enough to see what sort of practical partisan agenda might have motivated the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to make such a renegade and contrarian gesture with this statement:

Washington once again has lived up to its reputation as the “Land of Flickering Lights.” For four years in my townhall meetings across the state Coloradans have told me they want a plan that materially reduces the deficit. This proposal does not meet that standard and does not put in place a real process to reduce the debt down the road.

Bennet’s stated reasons for opposing the fiscal cliff deal — not to mention his first name — set him apart from the two other Senate Democrats who voted No: Iowa’s Tom Harkin and Delaware’s Tom Carper. [For those wondering, Bennet explained the “Land of Flickering Lights” metaphor in a February 2012 interview with the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank.]

In a December 7 video interview, Bennet told the Wall Street Journal‘s Gerald Seib about his bipartisan work with Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander to find a middle ground. Bennet expressed a belief that the GOP would budget on raising marginal tax rates on wealthier brackets while also indicating that Democrats are open to real entitlement reform. Of course, the deal that came down over the New Year holiday gave the President most of what he wanted on taxes while actually adding $4 trillion in new deficits.

Just before the 5-minute mark of the video, Bennet made a telling assertion about the early negotiations then underway between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner. “The details of that deal are much less important than their coming to a real deal,” he said. “And if they come to a real deal, we should support it.”

The junior senator then added with a whimsical expression: “Unless it takes Colorado out of the union, I will support a deal that the Speaker and the President reach, because it’s that important to our economy.”

For the record, there have been no reports that Congress may have inadvertently booted out the Centennial State. I’m not even aware of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid having taken any anonymous phone calls that might substantiate such a rumor. By this time, most Senators actually have had a chance to read what they voted on, so I think we’re safe from that particular uncertainty.

When he voted No in the wee hours of January 1, 2013, Bennet knew it was one that could easily be thrown away. Was it just a matter of affording a politician facing re-election in 2016 the opportunity to have it both ways? The markets and the economy have been spared in the short term, while he gets to wear the white hat trying to take a stand for long-term fiscal sanity. (How else could Bennet get away with moving to the right of his Republican negotiating partner Lamar Alexander on the debt issue?)

Meanwhile, his vote has caused a bit of discomfort among the Lefty Netroots — though we all know they’ll come to the Democratic camp when push comes to shove. But what about 2014: I mean, how effectively did Bennet’s vote triangulate his senior Democratic colleague Mark Udall, who has to face the voters in a mere 22 months?

All that comprises some interesting electoral speculation about events surely to be shaped by the next “crisis” approaching Congress. As the House and Senate stare down the debt ceiling again in a couple months, will the DSCC chairman of all people have provided the platform on which conservatives can take a stand? Unwittingly or no, will Bennet’s unorthodox decision help give Republicans enough backbone to let Obama take us over the debt cliff, if need be, in order to win a substantive deal with real entitlement and long-term spending reform?

Hey, we conservatives need something besides bland humor to hang our hat on these days. Because if the GOP rolls over and plays dead between now and March, it will transcend mere elections. The trouble facing my kids and the whole next generation of Americans would be too painful to contemplate.

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