Littwin: In the Senate, mature or ambitious, not both | AspenTimes.com

Littwin: In the Senate, mature or ambitious, not both

Mike Littwin

This won't surprise you, but the story of Cory Gardner's ascent to the Senate and to national prominence is already being rewritten, in the way these things always are.

Chriz Cillizza, the (rightly) renowned Mr. Fix of the Washington Post, has declared Gardner the best candidate in the midterm elections (as good a choice as any) for his win over Mark Udall.

But then Cillizza got a little carried away. He also wrote that Democrats underestimated Gardner (wrong), that they thought he'd be "a fire-breathing social conservative" (wrong) and that when attacked on personhood, Gardner "stayed totally focused on his own message" (actually, he countered with his strangely effective support of over-the-counter birth-control pills).

Meanwhile, Rob Witwer, the former Republican state representative who co-wrote the book on how Democrats won control of Colorado politics, wrote in The Weekly Standard that Gardner won the race on issues and ideas. I know. What issues? What ideas? The 99 percent? The OTC? That he invented Colorado's green economy? That federal personhood is not personhood? Sadly, as Witwer must know, this race was basically issue-free on both sides.

But as the quote goes: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." So we now have the purple superhero/human sunbeam who, as Cillizza (rightly) pointed out, is suddenly a potential force in national Republican politics.

And it's his own rewrite — the one we've seen in action since Gardner joined the Senate race — that really matters.

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If you watched him Sunday with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week," you saw Gardner — who has been rated as the 10th most conservative Republican in a Congress full of House crazies — as the sensible moderate calling for comity and for compromise and who came out as anti-shutdown and pro-immigration reform.

He got a few headlines in warning his fellow Republicans that they had to govern "maturely" and "with competence" unless they wanted to be hammered in 2016 the way Democrats were hammered last week.

It was a good performance — a continuation of his good campaign. But the question is: Is it a performance he can maintain?

Here's the problem. Gardner has always been a moderate in his rhetoric. That — along with his ability to avoid answering tough questions — was the key to his victory. He may have a right-wing voting record but no Tancredo-like, or Beauprez-like, quotes to live down. He has always explained his record by saying he voted as his district would want him to. But now that he represents a very purple state, will he vote any differently?

There are very few Republican moderates in the Senate — fewer than a handful. The cynical take on Gardner is that, in his world, ambition trumps ideology. But in this Republican Senate, being a moderate takes nerve. In fact, being a moderate is the radical position, and not necessarily a winning one.

But it's also a position that's begging for a champion — a young senator who's not Ted Cruz or Rand Paul and who, at age 40, might suddenly have his own higher ambitions.

Let's say that Gardner, representing a state with a significant Latino population, decided to go all in on immigration reform. Let's say that, maybe in concert with Michael Bennet, he came out with a bill something like the one the Senate passed this year — one that doesn't insist that "a path to citizenship" be called "amnesty." Let's say it's a bill that Barack Obama would sign. Let's say that Gardner challenged his old colleagues in the House to step up and do the right thing.

What do you think would happen? Maybe you should ask Marco Rubio, whose support for the Senate immigration bill has left him begging for conservatives to forgive his apostasy. Do you really see Gardner as an apostate? OK, I don't, either.

And as E.J. Dionne wrote the other day, whatever hints Republicans are now offering, they aren't likely to give Obama anything. It's just not in their interest. If they show they can govern with a Democratic president, that gives Americans every reason to elect another Democratic president. What they'll probably do instead is force Obama to veto bills and try to put the blame for dysfunction on him.

Gardner admitted to Stephanopoulos that there was no chance to repeal Obamacare with Obama as president. And yet, he voted 50 times for repeal in the House. How would he vote as a senator? Here's another sample, and not-so-hypothetical, circumstance: What will Gardner do if the Senate actually votes on the personhood bill that Gardner has insisted is not a personhood bill? Those are just for starters.

Gardner is good, but he'd have to be really good to walk that line — conservative, but not too conservative; moderate, but not a dreaded RINO (Republican in name only). Gardner made a great gamble running for the Senate. He traded his House seat to Ken Buck and got his friend Amy Stephens to quit the race, meaning there was no primary to push him to the right. And during the campaign, Republicans were so desperate to win that no one blanched when he abandoned personhood or when he went semi-moderate on illegal immigration or when he unexpectedly became a champion of birth control.

It worked in his campaign, which is all about being elected, and when the conservative base gave Gardner all the room he needed. But how would it work in the Senate, which voters might think is presumably, or at least occasionally, about actually governing? That's the story. And we've just finished the opening chapter.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for Colorado Independent.com.