Jay Evensen: What would you have done in Bennett's place?
Most of you support the financial reform bill that's pending in Congress.
How do I know this? An opinion poll told me.
The Pew Financial Reform Project released a poll last week that found 52 percent of likely voters in Utah think passing a reform bill right now is more important than anything else Congress or the president could do. In addition, 74 percent want an early warning system in place to alert people of looming trouble in the financial industry (whatever that means), and 72 percent want an orderly process in place to allow businesses to fail without harming the rest of the economy — ending the notion of something being "too big to fail."
Finally, the poll reached the ominous conclusion that any incumbent who didn't support such things would likely suffer in November — 42 percent would be less likely to vote for someone who didn't vote for financial reform this year.
Now, pretend you are a Republican member of Congress from Utah. How do you vote?
I'm guessing most of you would say you would vote your conscience. If you think the bill is right, you would support it; if not, you would oppose it, regardless of the consequences. Which just shows how easy it is to be ideologically pure when you don't really have to be a leader.
One of the clear lessons from last week's defeat of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett at the state Republican convention is that purists who are motivated to be actively involved in politics on both sides of the aisle do not consider compromise or friendship with the other side to be a virtue.
Within a few days of Bennett's defeat, we published a letter from a reader who warned Sen. Orrin Hatch he also would be handed his "pink slip" if he voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. This ultimatum came before anyone really knew much about Kagan, other than that she presumably has liberal leanings — something that hardly should surprise anyone, given who nominated her.
Bennett was defeated in large measure because of his vote in favor of the Bush administration's bailout of failing financial firms in 2008. That was orchestrated by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who was an ideological supporter of the free market but who became pragmatic when faced with the real possibility the entire economy could collapse.
Everyone who voted in favor of this bailout did so with an understanding of the possible political risks. Here's how a wire-service story this newspaper published at the time put it:
"In an Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll, only 30 percent of those surveyed expressed support for Bush's package. An additional 45 percent were opposed, with 25 percent undecided. ... Aides to lawmakers in both parties say telephone calls from constituents are running heavily against the bailout — in some cases nearly 100-1 against, making the vote a potentially tricky one for a candidate in a competitive race."
And yet Bennett and a majority of other members of Congress voted for it. One can only presume they did so because they put their notion of what they felt was right ahead of anything else.
I remember a time when the common complaint against President Bill Clinton was that he never made a decision without first consulting an opinion poll. When polls showed most Americans opposed to Clinton's impeachment, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., dismissed them by saying, "Poll-taking is an art, not a science." Americans wanted real leadership, not someone who always followed what the people wanted.
Except, of course, that this is not what many Americans want at all.
So what would you do? If you believed in the financial reform bill, would you support it even though it is a Democratic bill? If you opposed it, would you try to amend it to find a compromise? Or is compromise now to be avoided at all costs?
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