Harry Reid and Bob Bennett: Color them purple

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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At first it might seem that Democratic Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Republican Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah) don’t have much in common ideologically.

Reid is the Senate majority leader, a moderate Democrat who supported the president’s all-private insurance national health plan with no public option. Bennett is a member of the Republican Senate leadership (as counsel to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) and is a classic and consistent conservative who opposed the president’s healthcare measure and even the Children’s Health Insurance Program — concerned about too much federal government spending and regulation.

But despite their significant political and policy differences, Sens. Reid and Bennett have important similarities.

They are senators from neighboring conservative Western states, Nevada and Utah.

They are both highly religious and spiritual men — both faithful Mormons.

They are both pro-life, strong opponents of abortion except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment of the life of the mother.

Importantly, they are both civil and decent individuals, respectful of others who disagree with them. Both have demonstrated that it is possible to be both principled in the mainstream of their respective political parties but also bipartisan in trying to find solutions that benefit their states and the American people.

Utah Republican and conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch describes Reid as someone “we all respect … He is one of the moderate voices around here who tries to get things to work.” Former Mississippi conservative Sen. Trent Lott (R), himself a one-time Senate majority leader, agrees, “Harry Reid is out there finding a solution. I enjoy working with him.”

Bennett strongly opposed and voted against President Barack Obama’s national healthcare bill. Yet there are actually Republicans in Utah who have been misled into forgetting that fact and object to his co-sponsoring a national healthcare bill with a Democratic senator, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, of the Healthy Americans Act (HAA). What these critics don’t seem to know is that this legislation would have entirely privatized the healthcare system and was supported by such leading Republican Senate conservatives as Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa).

The Bennett-Wyden bill attracted such conservative support because it relied on the entirely conservative principle of allowing everyone with employer-provided insurance to take a non-taxable salary increase equal to the cost of the premium the employer had been paying, after which the employee would be able to use the extra cash to buy his or her own insurance in a competitive private marketplace, including the same less expensive insurance that every member of Congress and federal employee can buy. The plan, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would have reduced healthcare costs by over $1 trillion while being revenue-neutral in the first year of operation and producing positive revenues (thus reducing deficits) within 10 years.

Besides Reid’s and Bennett’s demonstrated record of bipartisanship, they have something else in common: They are both fathers and prolific grandfathers. They have, together, a total of 11 children (Bennett, six; Reid, five) and 36 grandchildren (Bennett, 20; Reid, 16).

I am willing to bet that each man can name the names of every grandchild.

Finally, Reid and Bennett have one unfortunate similarity: They both face vitriolic political opposition based on distortions of their records and personnel innuendo that seems all too common in today’s polarized political culture within both parties.

Reid has been wrongfully attacked by one of the leading Republican candidates, Sue Lowden, a former TV reporter, who has publicly declared that those who can’t afford basic healthcare can use “chickens” as barter for a physician’s services. As a state senator, she also voted against providing health insurance for women who take mammograms to detect breast cancer.

Bennett has been attacked recently by the far right in the Utah Republican Party. In a low-turnout primary, this great conservative Republican, who can easily win the general election and use his seniority to help Utah, may actually lose in the primary. And the only reason he would lose is the blatant distortion of his record by people who think that shouting and name-calling is an appropriate substitute for vigorous debate and sticking to the facts. As Bennett recently told a newspaper: “Now, [some of these Republican political activists say] I’m not a true Republican because I don’t go on Fox and CNN and scream.”

I am betting that these two decent men — both of whom I disagree with on some issues because they are not liberal enough for me — will, when all is said and done, win reelection. Because I believe in the final analysis, decency and integrity win — even today, when the haters and demonizers on the left and right make the most noise and sometimes get the highest ratings.

This piece appears today, May 6, 2010, in Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill, “Purple Nation,” and on The Daily Caller, an online political website.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).