Political courage, not civility, is what’s missing these days

A month or so ago, Martelle Daniels, a respected local figure whom I have always liked, wrote a letter to the editor taking me to task for tough words I aimed at U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Others have followed suit and, strange as it may seem, I enjoyed every one.

Generally, I appreciate it when readers take to the desktop to critique what I write. If there’s anything I miss about politics, it is the brass tack, give-and-take of the American political process.

As much as it may not seem like it most days, politics actually does matter. Ideas have consequences. Differences matter, and in many cases, those differences are worth arguing about. And sometimes, they are worth shouting about.

I’m a little sick of the incessant whining about how politics in America has become uncivil, as if politics in America has ever been confused for ping pong in the garage on a warm summer night. (Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in the abdomen, for Pete’s sake.)

These days, liberals have taken to arguing that the “national debate should be lifted to a higher plane.” By a higher plane they apparently mean, don’t you dare question the president when, for example, he tells small business owners, “You didn’t build that.”

If your definition of civility is mindless acquiescence to a president who is wrecking America, well, let’s just say we define civility differently.

As those long lines at Chick-fil-A earlier this week showed, America is still a free country where free expression prevails, even when that expression gets a little cantankerous.

Which brings me back to that letter to the editor from Daniels, which was itself a little cantankerous (good for her).  It was written in response to a column I had written the week before where I cited Michael Bennet as an object lesson in the brutal-but efficacious-campaign tactics of Colorado Democrats. My column argued that there was no reason (save a highly ruthless and effective campaign) that a toe-the-line toady for Barack Obama — read that, Sen. Bennet — should have survived the Republican tidal wave that was the 2010 election.

In her letter to the editor, Martelle took issue with my characterizations of the senator, saying that my “claim of partisanship does not stand up to the facts and, unfortunately, shows the blind partisanship of Penry ...”

In her letter, Daniels continued: “Sen. Bennet has worked across the aisle on issues large and small. Last month, he guided a bipartisan bill to modernize the FDA, working closely with Republicans such as Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Sen. Orin Hatch of Utah and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming to pass the bill ... In April he brought Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon together to craft a bipartisan bill that would allow the general public to invest in startup companies over the Internet.”

Fair points, all. I suspect Sen. Bennet and, for that matter, every member of Congress, could point to many moments when they worked with someone from the other side of the aisle.

But, as much as I don’t want to diminish the importance of bipartisan approach on second-tier issues like overhauling the FDA, bipartisanship on the small(er)-bore matters of state isn’t really the point at all. The fate of the Republic does not hang on FDA reform.

What America needs is big thinkers unafraid to fight for big reform. We need courageous statesmen who will tell their most favored interest group (and their most powerful party leaders) to “take a hike” when naked partisanship stands in the way of an obvious opportunity for progress.

Yes, we need senators like Michael Bennet to actively fight for entitlement reform (he has not), to show some independence and demand that his party’s leader, Sen. Harry Reid, pass an actual budget that pays down the deficit and cuts the debt (he will not), to show some real courage and vote against budget-busting measures like Obamacare (he did not).

On the big issues that will define the future prosperity of the country, Bennet has indeed been a party-line kinda guy, FDA reform notwithstanding.

The fact of the matter is, America isn’t suffering for a lack of bipartisanship on the small matters of state, any more than we are suffering from a simple lack of civility. I say, let’s have ourselves a cantankerous debate on the big issues that truly matter, then let’s end it with bona fide compromise that serves the national interest.

It’s the way America has done business of governing through the generations. Bennet and his colleagues would win themselves the acclaim of history if they followed that path again.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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